“Put ‘Em On The Endangered Species List” (#111)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the 90s, an elite team of podcasters has been selected to journey deep into the jungle, dive deep into the ocean, and dig deep underground to locate some of the deadliest predators ever known to moviedom.

Two of cinema’s greatest auteurs made creature features that have gone down as classics — Hitchcock’s The Birds in the 60s and Spielberg’s Jaws in the 70s. In their wake, however, the genre known as “nature horror” took a steep downhill turn into low-budget schlock, and sadly, creature features became an endangered species. But for a brief, beautiful window during the 1990s, movies about hungry, hungry critters great and small came roaring back! The genre flirted with becoming mainstream again, nabbing bigger budgets, bigger stars, and monster-sized box office receipts (in some cases).

So welcome to Part One of our 90s Creature Sexa-Feature! (“Sex” as in “six.” Get your mind out of the gutter — there might be alligators down there!) In this episode, we unearth Tremors, which features Kevin Bacon and Reba McEntire pole-vaulting away from giant worms, then direct all eight of our eyes toward the shrieking spiders of Arachnophobia, which still has the power to scare at least one of our hosts off his tuffet. Finally, we go bananas for the killer gorillas of Congo (1995), which features Tim Curry, Laura Linney, and a host of others giving performances that are almost as big as the lost diamonds of Zinj.

Pour yourself a green drop drink and pack up that sesame cake, because we’re hunting down and rounding up the very finest big screen animal attacks of the 90s! (Survival not guaranteed.)

Listen to the podcast here or on iTunes.

I have an inexplicable soft spot for creature features of the 90s. Beyond Hitchcock and Spielberg’s classics, I’m not particularly fond of the creature features that were released before the 90s. Nor am I very fond of those released after — Snakes On A Plane, Crawl, 47 Meters Down, The Shallows, and this year’s Beast (several of which I didn’t even bother to watch). In my eyes, the most unsettling creature feature released in recent years is Cats. Everything else is subpar.

I can’t claim that any of these films are high art. But the first trio of films covered in our 90s Creature Sexa-Feature all had a surprising amount of… charm? Yes, they all still feature several people dying horrible deaths at the hands (or fangs or mouth-tentacles) of a deadly animal. But in a cute way! (Kind of.)

Lots of titles are tossed around when “creature features” are mentioned, everything from Dracula to King Kong to Alien to Jurassic Park, each of which I’d place in a different category of monster movies. Supernatural creatures are their own genre, as are extra-terrestrials. When a creature gets to be King Kong or Godzilla-sized, then you have a monster movie. Jurassic Park is close to a creature feature, because the creatures it features were, at one point, found in nature, and the way they behave is animal-like. Scientific tinkering is sometimes involved in creature feature stories (like in Deep Blue Sea), but the truest creature features are “nature horror.” Their villains are animals attacking out of instinct — either because they’re territorial, protecting their young, trying to ensure their own survival, or just hungry. These are real animal behaviors. All of the movies we discussed take serious liberties with the size and behavior of their creatures, but they’re not so far removed from what could happen if you get in a predator’s way.

Tremors is the worst example of a bona fide creature feature amongst these titles, given that the Graboids are not a creature found in nature. (At least, not found yet.) They’re also quite big — the film borders on being a monster movie. But the film — about a rag-tag group of everyday folks who unwittingly wander into a deadly situation, a problem which is contained in the area around one small town — is much more like Lake Placid or Arachnophobia than Godzilla orJurassic Park. In part, that’s because it is as silly as it is horrifying. The tone is light.

Sometimes you wander into a creature’s territory. Sometimes they come to you. Like The Birds and Jaws, Tremors and Arachnophobia both concern small towns that become overwhelmed by an invasion from very unwelcome guests, and both lean heavy into comedy. They’re family-friendly creature features, provided your family enjoys seeing people succumbing to wild animal attacks. (And in a nice bit of continuity, creepy-crawlies skitter across a TV screen showing a scene from Growing Pains featuring Tremors star Michael Gross.) As I effusively expressed on the podcast, I am not a fan of the arachnid. Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia is the only one of these films that actually freaks me out. As much as I enjoy the goofy-creepy tone and inventive arachnid attacks, I’ll rarely watch it, because it gives me screaming spider nightmares. Let’s not talk about it.

Frank Marshall also helmed Congo, which offered up the biggest surprise in these episodes. Granted, its creatures are its worst feature, though Stan Winston’s special effects are truly incredible. The evil gorillas come off like an afterthought, attacking the humans just a couple of times and then quickly dispatched by Laura Linney’s diamond laser and some well-timed lava. Yes, Congo‘s obstacles are abundant, ranging from an erupting volcano to hungry, hungry hippos to African bureaucracy.

But Congo still counts as a creature feature because of Amy, the genuinely great talking gorilla. (Her sign language is spoken aloud by a Siri-like voice, which actually works really well in making her a compelling character.) There’s a lot of intentionally absurd humor around Amy — she smokes, drinks martinis, and gets territorial by referring to Laura Linney as “ugly woman” — which felt strange back in 1995 when we were expecting a Jurassic Park-style summer blockbuster. Congo is more of an old school adventure-comedy, closer to The African Queen than Jaws, and it’s a lot of fun if you’re able to surrender to the silliness like I was this time around. It’s got a supremely suave wilderness guide in Ernie Hudson, an even-hammier-than-usual Tim Curry as a greedy Romanian philanthropist named Herkermer Homolka, and a special guest appearance by Delroy Lindo, who’s really just here to scream about sesame cake. (And in another delightful bit of continuity, Jimmy Buffett — last heard crooning the ridiculous spider anthem “Don’t Bug Me” over Arachnophobia‘s end credits — cameos as an airplane pilot in Congo.)

All three of these films had incredible special effects and lots of (totally intentional) laughs. That’s not typical of creature features in general, which often tend to look cheap (because they are) and accidentally provoke giggles. So far, so good… and onto the next!


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