Filmic Fac­toids

David Lang­ford ex­plains in­con­tro­vert­ible mon­ster sci­ence

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Opinion -

After edit­ing heaps of ar­ti­cles on ter­ri­ble old SF films, I want to write The Sci­ence Of Mon­ster Movies… in the great tra­di­tion of The Sci­ence Of Star Trek and The Sci­ence Of Harry Pot­ter. Things I have learned:

Ra­di­a­tion makes things big. Nu­clear test­ing cre­ates gi­ant ants in Them! ( the 1954 clas­sic), cos­mic rays pro­duce gi­ant wasps in Mon­ster From Green Hell ( 1957), ura­nium ore causes gi­antish spi­ders in Hor­rors Of Spi­der Is­land ( 1959), and a tiny smear of the flesh- eat­ing Blob rip- off in Caltiki, The Im­mor­tal Mon­ster ( 1959) not only grows but re­pro­duces when a rayemit­ting comet skims Earth.

Ra­di­a­tion also mu­tates things -- fast! Ura­nium in The Cy­clops ( 1957) takes just six months to con­vert a lost ex­plorer to the ti­tle’s 25- foot, one- eyed hor­ror. In Day The World Ended ( 1955), World War Three is barely over be­fore ra­dioac­tive fall­out spawns a three- eyed, bul­bousheaded mon­ster to men­ace sur­vivors. Now imag­ine the script con­fer­ence where some­one asked, “How do we es­tab­lish that this mu­tant is what­ser­name’s miss­ing fi­ancé?” and they re­mem­bered that Hol­ly­wood were­wolves re­vert to hu­man form on dy­ing. Death re­verses the mu­ta­tion process! I must have missed that par­tic­u­lar bi­ol­ogy class.

Ra­di­a­tion works dif­fer­ently on dif­fer­ent things. Is­land Claws ( 1980), made soon after Three Mile Is­land, sees crabs on the Florida Keys en­raged by ra­dioac­tive leak­age from a lo­cal re­ac­tor. They at­tack com­mu­ni­ties in terrifying scenes of stock footage. But thanks to an as­pect of ra­di­a­tion known to physi­cists as “limited ef­fects bud­get”, only one crab be­comes tra­di­tion­ally huge. Un­able to beat its chest like King Kong, it roars and sticks out its tongue, re­duc­ing the au­di­ence to fear- crazed gig­gles.

You are what you eat. Any an­i­mal- de­rived won­der drug will in­fect vic­tims with hor­rid an­i­mal traits. Bat’s blood spoils your so­cial life by turn­ing you into Bat­man, or rather into The Vam­pire ( 1957). Wolf blood serum: a were­wolf in The Mad Mon­ster ( 1957). Al­li­ga­tor DNA: The Al­li­ga­tor Peo­ple ( 1959). I don’t think wasps make royal jelly, but as a beauty treat­ment it has tire­some side- ef­fects in The Wasp Woman ( 1959). Bee royal jelly: In­va­sion Of The Bee Girls ( 1973) … and so on to the re­cent Dis­trict 9 ( 2009), where bod­ily fluid from alien prawns causes the hero to de­velop a prawn arm with Se­cret Prawn Pow­ers.

This is such a whiskery SF cliché that PG Wode­house spoofed it in a 1926 story where film ad­dicts dis­cuss the se­rial The Vi­cis­si­tudes of Vera ( a dig at The Per­ils of Pauline from 1914), fea­tur­ing a mad sci­en­tist plan­ning to give our hero­ine a

Crabs at­tack in terrifying scenes of stock footage

spinal in­jec­tion of lob­ster­g­land ex­tract and turn her into a lob­ster. Be­cause that’s what mad sci­en­tists do.

Di­nosaurs are our favourite monsters. Prac­ti­cally ev­ery lost realm un­known to map- mak­ers con­tains a few. For ex­am­ple, they turn up far un­der­ground in Jules Verne’s Jour­ney To The

Cen­tre Of The Earth, whose 1959 film re­veals the sur­pris­ing fact that di­nosaurs looked just like mod­ern igua­nas with fins stuck on. This is be­cause… but you’re al­ready ahead of me. Other worldly di­nosaurs even turn up in the sin­gu­larly un­con­vinc­ing King Di­nosaur ( 1955), where we’re firmly told that an or­di­nary lizard en­larged through the magic of rear pro­jec­tion is a T- rex, crawl­ing on four legs. Couldn’t the stu­dio lizard- wran­gler have trained it to rear up a bit?

Lost worlds tend to ex­plode. Es­pe­cially if named At­lantis. An ob­scure tec­tonic con­di­tion called “fear of an­ti­cli­max” means that our ex­plor­ers can rarely es­cape to civ­i­liza­tion with­out the lost realm first be­ing de­stroyed by vol­ca­noes, earth­quakes, tsunamis, or prefer­ably all three. It’s no way to pro­mote tourism. David Lang­ford just van­ished un­der a Richter 9 lava tsunami.

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