Invisible Monsters: On Creature Features That Don’t Show Us Much

Jaws

Gareth Edwards’s reboot of Godzilla, the first good entry in the fifty-year-old franchise since 1984′s The Return of Godzilla, returns the monster to its horror roots. A cautionary tale at once brooding with cryptic consciousness and unabashedly pulpy, Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954) depicted a monster engendered by nuclear folly, the product of America’s “victory” by way of nuclear devastation.

The eponymous monster is famous for rising from the murky water and wrecking havoc on Japan and, later, an increasingly silly series of adversary monsters, but the seminal incarnation, and the progenitor of all kaiju, didn’t actually appear on screen for a surprisingly long time. We see the percolating water, and ships consumed by flames, and we hear about the mysterious disappearance of sailors, but we don’t know what exactly is causing the destruction. Not at first.

Ripe with political resonance and unsubtle discord with the west, the film taps into modern anxieties of Japan circa 1954. The new film, stripped of political conviction but jacked-up with intensity, is another suspenseful thriller, keeping us in the dark, as it does its characters, shrouding the monster with the smokey whorls of a city on fire and a conspiratorial cover-up. Not as paranoid or blistered as the original, Edwards’s film nonetheless harnesses the same aesthetic philosophy as Honda and those who followed in his wake: the less we see, the more our imaginations perceive.

Godzilla didn’t make it to America in one piece, however. Embassy Pictures hacked it apart, flensing its nuclear references and splicing in shots of Raymond Burr (because Americans wouldn’t watch a film without any Americans in it, apparently). Ironically, the age of atomic monsters was entering its embryonic phase in America at the same exact time, as a little film called Them! was about to be unleashed on American moviegoers.

Source: United Artists

Source: United Artists

The first “Big Bug” movie, Them! depicts a town in New Mexico that faces an unseen threat they can’t explain (sound familiar?). A young girl is found wandering the desert in a daze; when she’s approach by police, she violently shrieks, “Them! Them!” The “Them” to which she’s referring is revealed, twenty minutes later (a long build up for a sci-fi film in 1954 — hell, a long build-up now), to be a colony of ants the size of school buses, the result of nuclear testing ten years earlier. Like GodzillaThem! allows us the time to let our imaginations run wild: What could possibly be doing this? The eventual answer — a dinosaur-lizard-monster thing or a colony of giant ants — is likely not something you considered.

The Thing From Another World and It! The Terror From Beyond Space both took a similar approach, showing us little of the monster. Howard Hawks’ The Thing had an overt Cold War theme coursing its vein like a slow-acting poison, and John Carpenter’s remake The Thing, while far more graphic and violent, is pervaded by that same paranoia of sameness and enemies hiding among us. Carpenter doesn’t explicitly show us the parasitic “alien,” but rather shows us (with an unflinching gaze almost too stunned to look away) what the alien does to its hosts.

The Thing and It! were B-movie premises with B+ executions, but Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough film, Jaws, took the b-movie concept and blew it up into something unprecedented. Spielberg, a wunderkind, had wowed producers with his tense, taut debut Duel, based on a screenplay from Richard Mattheson; they handed him the reigns on the Peter Benchley adaptation, and things immediately started to go wrong. The mechanical shark, Bruce, didn’t work, so Spielberg was forced to find ways to hide the shark (those infamous opening moments shot from the shark’s POV are one example). Every time the shark attacks, we see a little more.

First it’s just a dreamy, tranquil shot of the water; then a dorsal fine; then a far-off enmeshment of fins and a little boy’s yellow raft; then a glimpse of the shark’s whole body gliding just under the water. When we finally see the big guy in this awesome scene (with the ever-underrated Roy Scheider capping it off with his improvised line), we’ve had over an hour of suspense building, and Spielberg breaks that suspense with a close encounter.

Ridley Scott and the late H.R. Giger channeled the B-movie concept of It! The Terror From Beyond Space for their monumental Alien in 1979, but crafted a film with the same artistic precision as Spielberg did with Jaws. As with It! and Jaws, the creature is veiled in shadows, more of an insinuation at first, the conjuring of restless dreams. (It! did this to guise the low-budget and cheap costume, and Scott employed the same tactic, which is a big reason why the film has aged  incredibly well.) Drawing from the stalking terror of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Scott and co. created a single, singular, villain that spends more time hiding and waiting than actively pursuing (or is it all actively pursuing if done with intent?). The slick, secodont monster is only caught by fleeting partial glimpses, and once we do see it, it’s like being stabbed in the heart.

Perhaps the closest kin to Edwards’s Godzilla is Cloverfield, a film that used an enigmatic ad campaign to build anticipation and suspense with dexterous control. The trailer was unleashed abruptly and without warning, not unlike the monster; missing a title and offering a quick peek at the Statue of Liberty’s head crashing into the city streets, the trailer went viral and became a sensation. It was, and may still be, the apex of showing and telling as little as possible for maximum effect.

It uses footage from the beginning of the film (though no one knew that then), so virtually nothing was spoiled when the film finally came around. Was it a new Godzilla? A spin-off of Lost? A Lovecraft adaptation? The film, shot cinema verite-style, also shows us little of the monster (though the wonder of screen shots has made its ugly, vaguely vaginal face less ambiguous), though its destruction is captured in its entirety.

Both Cloverfield and Godzilla draw on post-9/11 fears, which uncomfortably resemble Cold War fears: an unseen enemy, attacking unannounced. The destruction is less personal and more panoramic, however, which makes the unseen part even more upsetting. How can something you don’t see turn Manhattan into rubble? Like a scary bedtime story, the Unseen Monster creates opaque images in your mind’s eye that you can’t unsee. It;s the boogeyman, waiting in your dreams. That’s what makes it so effective.

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