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Green Screen: Ecological Horror of the 1970s

  Although the United Kingdom had its Keep Britain Tidy campaign running from the late nineteen-sixties onwards, with posters and leaflets you hoped did not end up tossed aside in the street like Roy Hudd did while posing as a litterbug in the widely seen public information film, the concerns over the environment didn't really take off in pop culture until the first Earth Day in 1971, which strove to highlight the terrible toll humanity was inflicting on their surroundings. The results were seen at the movies when, following the cue from Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror The Birds, nature bit back in a series of revenge attacks, not just seagulls crazed with self-righteous fury, but a whole gamut of flora and fauna designed to put the message across that pollution was a Very Bad Thing, though quite what we were supposed to do about it was less clear.

Certainly the governments and pressure groups would tell you all you needed to know about cleaning up your act, but in the movies there tended to be a more drastic way of warning us of the perils of unthinking corruption of our ecology. In Britain, television brought us the hit series Doomwatch, a finger on the pulse delineation of whatever its creators Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler could think up as a pressing worry, and that in turn sired a big screen version in 1972 where an isolated coastal village harboured a grim secret about the effects of big business on their wellbeing. This was the year that the genre really took off, but it had actually begun in earnest not in the U.K or United States, where the 1971 public service film of Iron Eyes Cody playing an American Indian allowing a single tear to roll down his cheek at the sight of litter unleashed on his home had made such an impact.

Nope, you had to look to someone who had always been green - literally, for 1971 was the year Godzilla battled a new kind of foe in Japan. As the sixties had drawn on, the message making of the earlier series entries had given away to pulp space opera, yet with a new director and writer on board this time, Yoshimitsu Banno, there was a return to the socially conscious monster movie. But only for this instalment, as the rest of the seventies returned to the kiddie-friendly sci-fi, Godzilla vs. Hedorah having been judged a failure, though Banno had the last laugh when he produced the equally environmentally aware Hollywood Godzilla blockbuster of 2014. The difference between that and the one where the big guy battled the effects of pollution was very much in tone; the twenty-first century effort was very self-serious and sober, but the previous break from the routine was, to put it mildly, nuts.

It left us in no doubt that ecology was an important issue thanks to this being hammered over the audience’s heads for the best part of ninety minutes, with many images of the sea brimming with garbage and sludge, and - ulp! - sewage, as the voiceover informs us. Known in the West as Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster presumably because calling it Godzilla vs. The Shit Monster wouldn't have gotten past the censors, the titular beast is a shapeshifting nightmare of epic proportions, its main weapon flinging great globs of slime everywhere like a bored chimpanzee throwing its excrement at unwary zoo visitors. There was a small boy to comment on the action and pose as Godzilla's friend (though the giant pays him no notice whatsoever), and he has a scientist father who is on board to add weight to the facts behind the threat to our world's health; his mother is there to look angst-ridden.

That scientific aspect was important in seventies eco-horror, a supernatural explanation was out of the question, the inception for the disasters had to be based in some semblance of reality, and all the better if there was a man in a white coat, or at least a forest ranger or warden, to provide support to the harebrained schemes the screenwriter had dreamt up. In the case of Hedorah, he spouts some guff about its origins being from outer space, but what was important was that it was entirely made from waste products, our refuse come back to haunt us, which proved a resonant notion for the rest of the decade and beyond. Banno brought in a group of young people as an example of what would happen to their future should this be allowed to run rampant: they are swiftly dissolved after trying to counter the monster with singing and dancing to acid rock.

And anyway, you can tell how dire the situation is because the battle royale at the finale is presented at night time, when most of the franchise since the fifties had staged its combat during the daylight hours. But that underlined the overriding aspect of what was to come: we were meant to be scared of the possibilities, which according to these ranged from the pessimistic to the outright bleak. Out the following year was Frogs, which in spite of the title did not simply feature the ribbiting amphibians as the antagonist, but a host of animals which served to ruin evil millionaire Ray Milland's birthday party in his forest-set mansion, one of many ways that these films were not just about nature gaining revenge on mankind for messing up the environment, but for our generally disagreeable character which in this and the not dissimilar (though the beasts were bigger and didn't include a butterfly) Day of the Animals from 1977 saw us punished for our stupidity and short-sightedness.

However, the big hit, the absolute runaway success in the form showed up right at the midpoint of the decade, and arguably changed cinema forever: Steven Spielberg's Jaws. So classic is this seen by the consensus that it rose above its roots as an eco-horror and became disassociated from those contemporaries, no matter that the titular shark had plainly seen the crying Indian PSA and felt the need to act upon it. However, the movies cashing in on Jaws were a different matter, a selection of American, and a surprising amount of Italian, rip-offs where dipping a toe in the sea was tantamount to an invitation to be devoured bloodily by marine life. Among the likes of Mako: Jaws of Death or Tentacles there was perhaps the ultimate Jaws inspired horror, and it wasn't the inevitable Jaws 2 which saw hapless Chief Brody tackle another Great White which acted more like a slasher villain than a big fish.

Nope, it wasn't that, and there was an Italian connection for Dino De Laurentiis, more or less the Golan and Globus of the seventies, was the man who produced Orca. Now Dino had a higher hit rate than the Cannon boys, and even pushed through some fine movies almost despite himself, but quite often he would set into motion a bunch of pandering, lowest common denominator exploitation of whatever the current trend was, and Orca was one of those. Assembling a fairly high profile cast led by fisherman Richard Harris, this told a whale of a tale about how he tried to capture a shark, then when that was eaten by a killer whale (take that, Spielberg!), an orca since they were plainly far cooler, according to Dino at any rate. Alas, it ends in tragedy when the creature is cut up and loses its baby on the deck (with Harris making throwing up faces, as if it wasn't bad taste enough), leaving her mate to swear revenge - the resident scientist Charlotte Rampling informs us killer whales are more intelligent than humans any day of the week, which apparently excuses any number of extraordinary activity.

You're talking about a beast that manages to recognise Harris, track him down to his seaside home, blow up an oil refinery (from the sea!), eat Bo Derek's leg as he destroys said home, and behave more as if he were a hitman rather than a dumb animal. They had evidently seen Iron Eyes Cody too, for beneath some decidedly inhospitable gunmetal skies (Newfoundland was the location) the Indian contingent was represented by the Chief off of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest himself, Will Sampson, blatantly dubbed with someone else's voice, who appeals to the spiritual in staying on the right side of Mother Nature, more so than the fisherman's priest in fact. Harris in the meantime essayed his role with ludicrous dedication, raising laughs when we were supposed to be horrified as he flies in the face of logic, and Rampling's own stony face, to head off for a Moby Dick confrontation amid the icebergs.

All he has to do is follow Orca's waving fin - wait, wasn't that Flipper? The application of intelligence to the beasts was more Skippy the Bush Kangaroo-derived than anything in actual natural history, only turned in these movies to vanquishing people, with unspoken messages that we really deserved it after all and we should be backing the marauding beasts. Come the twenty-first century, the ecology warriors mostly took to documentaries, not coincidentally including Blackfish which practically took Professor Rampling's protests about abusing killer whales for entertainment and applied them to the real world, far more convincingly into the bargain. Back in the seventies we were dealing with hyperbole, as the disasters were so over the top that they became difficult to take as seriously as the films portrayed them: The Swarm, for instance, was laughed off the screen as lines like "I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees. They've always been our friend," were widely ridiculed.

Apart from Jaws, then, did any of these films have any worth as anything other than camp no matter their sincerity? Some would have it that the mutant bear movie Prophecy from director John Frankenheimer, the end of a short run of non-mutant killer bear flicks that saw filmmakers visit the great outdoors for extensive location shoots, was of interest given it had something important to say, but it really wasn't any different from the Hedorah beatdown, only its po-faced presentation was far less enjoyable. However, there was one work that deserved some praise, 1978's Australian Long Weekend, which stayed long in the memory thanks to its habit of popping up in the television schedules to creep out the unwary, depicting as it did a holidaying couple by an isolated beach whose terrible personalities invite the wrath of nature itself. It was one of the few to get its message making and horror just right, proving there was more to seventies eco-horror than kitsch. Sometimes.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006