MOVIE REVIEW: Two monster movies wield potent influence

With a little less than two weeks to go in October, the Halloween season is in full swing. This year is going to be quite different regarding traditional activities, but watching movies in our own homes still can be an enjoyable way to celebrate the holiday.

We started the month with some classic films that would get us into the “spirit,” and last week we went with the contemporary whodunit. Turning to the horror theme, this time we go with the good old-fashioned monster movie.

Originally, those films used the literary icons of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man popularized by early movie stars Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, respectively. As technology and techniques advanced, however, so came the story shift to groups of people having to survive abnormally large creatures attacking them or their livelihood.

While there are hundreds of films to choose from, let’s focus on two of the most influential films that truly are a must see for any fan of not only the genre, but movies in general.

"King Kong" (1933)

“The Eighth Wonder of the World” as it was subtitled is arguably the most famous film of its era and quite possibly the most prominent movie in the early part of the 20th century. An ambitious filmmaker gets wind of a remote island civilization that worships a giant ape and sets out to find and film it. Once arriving on the island, they find the legend to be true. After capturing the creature and returning to New York, he escapes, causing havoc in the city.

The story is relatively simple (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that approach), but how it is brought to life is what makes the film so remarkable. Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack tag team the directing duties, while allowing the great Willis O’Brien to create the nonhuman characters. Max Steiner’s score (considered to be the first music written specifically for a talkie film) provides the right amount of emotion for a cross-genre movie.

The film’s acting is not Oscar worthy, for it comes across as stiff and matter-of-fact. We do have to consider that these actors were working without any sort of reference point. It is difficult enough to deliver lines and remain in character when you are with another actor, but that difficulty is magnified when there isn’t anything there to bounce off of.

What does make the film so special is that Cooper and Schoedsack use every possible trick in the book to create the visual masterpiece. Kong is an 18-inch clay figure with rabbit fur attached to a metal frame. He is painstakingly manipulated into a position, photographed, adjusted, then photographed again. This process of stop-motion (for this film, it was more accurately called claymation) is time consuming and relies heavily on attention to detail. Once completed, however, the footage of Kong could be rear-projected behind the actors to give the illusion they were on screen together.

It can be found on Prime for $2.99, so curl up with your favorite Halloween treat and enjoy the film that started it all. While today’s visual effects are done on a computer and seamless on screen, it was Kong that laid the foundation for others to follow. Despite its age (87 years), the primitive photography (black and white), and its relative cheesiness, every single action/adventure/fantasy film from 1933 on has a flavor of this one making it the most influential film in American cinema history and therefore showing that “Kong” always will be king.

"Jaws" (1975)

One cannot mention monster movies without discussing the ultimate film of the category, Steven Spielberg’s horrifying adaptation of the Peter Benchley best-selling novel, “Jaws.”

Set in the small Atlantic island community of Amity, a young woman is viciously attacked during a midnight swim. When her remains wash up on shore, Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) believes a shark is responsible. He insists on closing the beaches before another attack and is overruled by the major and city council. When a young boy becomes the second victim on one of the busiest beach days, Brody teams up with a marine biologist by the name of Hopper (Richard Dreyfuss) and an old shark hunter, Quint (Robert Shaw), to find the shark before it can cause further mayhem.

Oddly enough, this would only be Spielberg’s second feature film (“The Sugarland Express” from 1974 was his first), so he hadn’t reached the level he is known for today. There was trouble all around – from the location (it was filmed at Martha's Vineyard), to being way over budget (water and film don’t mix), a lot of tension on the set between actors, and worst of all, the mechanical shark, which was temperamental to say the least (CGI hadn’t been invented yet).

These problems actually led to making the film as scary as it turned out to be. Without the use of the shark (named Bruce), Spielberg used forced perspective, which is a way of framing the shot to make things look bigger or smaller depending on the angle. He also used many POV (point-of-view) shots from the shark’s vantage point, giving viewers an eerie look at the victims. By going in this direction, the shark doesn’t actually show up until about two thirds of the way through the film, adding to the anxiety of watching the characters try to stop something they can’t see.

Like “Kong” (Spielberg said he was highly influenced by that film), “Jaws” pits a large creature against humans, but unlike the earlier film, this one plays more with the unknown. The chance of a giant ape roaming downtown New York is slim, but a great white near the beach of a resort town? Well let’s just say, there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t look for the dorsal fin in the water after viewing this movie. Sharks are real (and actually quite misunderstood), and using them as a catalyst for a horror film will scare just about everyone. If the premise doesn’t get you, there are a couple of jump scares that will make you lose your popcorn.

It is also on Prime for $3.99. It earns the R rating, and all films since have tried to replicate, but never duplicate the scare tactic here. It is a true pinnacle of the horror genre, and one that should be experienced at least once.

There you have it, two monster movies for at-home viewing, two classics in every sense of the word, each using tricks for a treat.

• Jim Stockwell is a tenured instructor at McHenry County College. He looks forward to resuming the role of host for the Second Monday Film Series at Classic Cinemas in Woodstock.

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