The Creature Feature: A Century of Scares.

Posted: January 16, 2015 in Cinema / Film, History, Horror
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Hello fiends, it’s the Maestro of the Macabre Dean Sexton here to take you on an adventure into the realm of terror and madness, a world bloated with guts and gore and all the miserable things that mutter to our dark natures.
Today boils and ghouls we’re going to take a look at one of my favorite genres, the Creature Feature, which if you can believe it will be turning 100 years old today, sheesh talk about one from the crypts! So gather your barf bags and bring your sheets up to your throats as we look at a dying genre and a few of the monsters that have made it so terrorific!
To take a proper look at the genre we must return to its roots and they were firmly planted a century ago in 1915 with a silent German film entitled The Golem. The Golem was co-written and directed by Paul Wegener and is thought to be the birth of the creature feature. Following in Wegener’s footsteps F.W. Murnau released Nosferatu in 1922, an expressionist horror film based off Bram Stoker’s Dracula that gave birth to Count Orlok, and the first cinematic representation of a vampire but definitely not the last.
In America Universal, (then named Independent Moving Pictures Company) saw an opportunity to capitalize on the success of the European monster movies and when the Lon Chaney film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame became an overnight sensation in 1923 the company realized they were on to something. Chaney went on to become the face of horror during the 1920’s and paved the way for the character actors who followed him after his death in 1930.

Despite the overwhelming poverty that strangled the economy during the Great Depression executive Carl Laemmle Jr. produced a series of massive successes for Universal, the most prominent of these films being Dracula and Frankenstein. Both films were released in 1931, and launched the careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Carl Laemmle taking inspiration from European cinema ushered in a new genre of American cinema, the Monster Movie, a genre that saw nearly twenty years of unrivaled success with hits like The Mummy, The Black Cat, and The Invisible Man, movies that would spawn characters who would become pop culture icons and synonymous with the Universal name.
By the 50’s Universal had retired most of its original line of horror characters as the market had grown stagnant from over exposure, however with the release and success of the Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954 the Universal monsters returned to theaters as double features and aired on television as part of the famous Shock Theater.

But that my dearest darlings is just one half of the Creature Feature’s origins, its more human side so to speak. Its other half began in 1933 with the release of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, a film that is hailed as the birth of the true monster movie and the start of a trend that would take the world by storm
In 1945 the world witnessed the birth of the nuclear weapon and it ushered in the Atomic Age, a period of unmatched dread and paranoia. The Cold War had begun and people retreated into their homes in search of an escape from the horrors of the outside world. Bomb shelters were built and humanity sat by their televisions preparing for the worst, that what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki would happen on American soil.
Filmmakers looked to this paranoia as an inspiration for their films and movies such as Godzilla, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them! helped to propel the genre to new and terrifying heights. People started leaving their houses and headed to the Drive-in to watch these movie monsters as a way of escaping their foreboding sense of terror, transforming their fears into entertainment.
The Atomic Era saw the birth of filmmakers such as Ray Harryhausen and Ed Wood, whose films are cherished by modern directors like Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg who have taken direct inspiration from their films.
After 1960 monster movies faded into obscurity and it wasn’t until 1975 that the genre returned in full force with Spielberg’s Jaws and again in 1979 with Ridley Scott’s moody sci-fi/ horror film Alien. Both Jaws and Alien served as the second coming of the monster movie and were the start of what we call the modern day Creature Feature and following their success other filmmakers jumped on the bandwagon and gave us viewers more monsters to terrorize our nightmares.

The eighties, or what I refer to as the decade of horror, gave us hits like Gremlins, Critters, The Fly, The Thing and an assortment of other horrifying new creatures to scare us and saw the Creature Feature genre split into multiple sub-genres. Gone were the familiar faces of the Universal monsters and in there place sat a new, more terrifying breed of monster. Special effects and advancements in prosthetics and animatronics brought these new beasts to life in ways that the character actor never could and the creature feature thrived. Their popularity however would not last forever, and these new beasts although terrifying, were not invincible. With the birth of the slasher genre and with films like Black Christmas, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street becoming commercial successes the Creature Feature slowly faded into obscurity once more.

Since the decline in the genres popularity in the late eighties we have seen several attempts to re-conjure the magic of the creature feature, films of note being Tremors, Mimic, The Relic, Splinter, The Ruins, and Jurassic Park, however none of them have managed to recapture the mania that films like Frankenstein, Jaws and Alien invoked. Sure many of them were critical and commercial successes but the saturation of the genre just isn’t what it used to be. Perhaps it’s a testament to our time, where the real terror isn’t from something inconceivable, extinct or manufactured, but instead from our own inevitable extinction brought upon us by our ignorance and unwillingness to change. Perhaps humanity has finally realized that the creatures we’ve created over the years aren’t the real monsters at all, but rather visual representations of our darkest selves. Perhaps I’m just being melodramatic and nostalgia is forcing me to keep my head firmly in the past. In any case I long for the triumphant return of the creature feature, or at the very least the next phase in its ever evolving history.

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The Ancient Eight.

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