I grew up with monsters. Sandwich-ed between furious bike rides and downing cherry Kool-Aid was the campy afternoon horror and sci-fi movie show Shock Theatre, which ran through the mid-'80s on Dayton's WKEF-TV.
Hosted by the ghoulishly made-up Dr. Creep, Shock Theatre served as my tutorial on timeless horror. I was introduced to every form of monster movie available — the gothic terrors of Britain's Hammer Studios, Japanese sci-fi and the classic Universal monsters Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Mummy.
The combination of fear and uneasy laughter produced by these films was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. A monster movie fan was born.
I was excited when I heard about the resurrection of three old friends — Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman — in the first of the summertime blockbuster releases, Van Helsing, with Hugh Jackman starring as the famed vampire killer. This unholy trio shared screen time in the past (1944's House of Frankenstein and 1945's House of Dracula), but the possibility of a modern reunion sounded irresistible.
Then I saw Van Helsing, and my excitement sank. Computer generated imagery and mind-spinning effects created a monster film for the ADD generation.
The film was fast, confusing and near impossible to decipher. All sense of character, suspense and fear were thrown away, leaving three monster icons as fodder for an action film.
Van Helsing has made the idols of my youth lifeless. Bela Lugosi's suave, seductive Dracula became a hyperactive brute transformed into a giant, super-powered bat-like creature. The pristine makeup of Lon Chaney's original Wolfman was replaced by a powerful, CGI-beast with the speed of a cheetah. Boris Karloff's compassionate Frankenstein became a massive, talking pastiche with super-human strength.
Granted, movie monsters have always been in a constant state of evolution. Where would the horror film be without the mass improvements in makeup and gore effects over the decades?
If done well, the latest special effects create incredible rushes of adrenaline and action that push the scares to even higher levels. Van Helsing has more than its share of flying things, crashes and explosions. What it's missing is true horror, mystery, suspense and characters that instill fear.
The Mummy (1999) and its 2001 sequel The Mummy Returns — both, coincidentally, by Van Helsing director Stephen Sommers — and the recent vampire/werewolf combo Underworld all claim an abundance of computer-generated images, enough to turn their creatures into cartoon-like caricatures. A CGI showcase like Van Helsing — a film promoted as the newest, biggest, most expensive action spectacle — is in effect an anti-monster movie, a dagger in the heart of true movie horror.
No monster is safe from hyper action, CGI assaults and remakes, not even the once-lumbering zombies from George Romero's 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead or its 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead. In the original Dawn, released at the height of U.S. self-absorption and consumer-driven hedonism, Romero's mindless, flesh-eating zombies set out to possess a shrine from their former lives, the shopping mall and the infighting and greed that eventually doomed the unlucky survivors typified the '70s unlike any other movie.
The flashy Dawn remake abandons all of the original's socio-political subtleties and substance in favor of breakneck speed and tension. Taking an obvious cue from the running, zombie-like virus victims of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, director Zack Snyder transforms the undead into rabid sprinters with a bloodlust as deadly as their gait.
Romero's skillfully crafted, shuffling zombies have disappeared, along with the social fears they represented. The mall's significance becomes an afterthought as well, serving only as a feeding trough for these newly enhanced zombies as well as a massive, concrete mausoleum for their victims. Blood and spectacle are the names of the game in Snyder's zombie remake. Substance is non-existent.
Speaking at a retrospective of his films at the recent Movieside Film Festival in Chicago, Romero was quick with an answer when asked about the CGI effects in the Dawn of the Dead remake.
"I think it's definitely harder to relate to that stuff," the laid-back Romero said. "It lifts you out of the story, even more so than the early King Kong mechanical effects."
Romero noted his dislike of the Dawn remake several times, although he did concede that he found it entertaining as a straightforward action film.
Van Helsing's spawn — these hyper action, CGI-heavy, monster movies — appear to be the trend with one notable exception. Due to hit theatres in late July, M. Night Shyamalan's The Village looks to be a much-needed return to classic horror. Set in 1897 Pennsylvania, the film chronicles the terrorizing events that befall the residents of a rural village when they breach a truce with the mythical creatures living in the surrounding forests.
In his ghost story The Sixth Sense and alien invasion thriller Signs, Shyamalan acknowledges cinema's past by taking time to develop suspense, lasting scares and memorable monsters. By delivering in the tradition of the old guard, Shyamalan signals hope for a future devoid of synthetic gimmicks.
In the meantime, I'm still waiting for my monsters to return.
Filmmaker and one-time CityBeat staffer PHIL MOREHART currently works at Facets Multimedia in Chicago.