Monday, 14 August 2017

There's Something in the Water

I am quite happy to admit that generally throughout my life I have always been a very anxious person. When I was little I used to worry about my house catching fire and how my window was too small to fit a mattress out of to jump on to. I also used to anxious about giants. As an anxious kid I tended to wake up a lot during the night to worry about things, and in the dead of night I now know I could hear my heartbeat pulsing in my eardrums, but I would imagine this was a giant coming up the stairs(?) to murder me. I would like to say I got better as I got older, but I am still an anxious person. I don't just ruminate on adult things like work or being late, I will still lay awake at night and think about nuclear bombs, or how exactly I would feel if each of my loved ones died.

The last thing you would expect an anxious person to do is watch horror movies, but the comfort of being able to guess what is happening, the formula, has always appealed to me. Plus, when I am worrying about someone on a screen I don't have to worry about anything in real life.

In Jaws, Chief Brody is an anxious person. Brody worries about the ocean, and boats, and his kids getting eaten by a shark that may not even exist. I've always tried to model myself after Brody, a quiet worrier who doesn't want to cause a fuss. In one of my many midnight musings I started thinking about how anxious Jaws made me, the pronged terror of the abyss, the lack of land. It's not just Jaws, its underwater all together.

Jaws 2
I am not a swimmer, I cannot even say "I'm not a strong swimmer" because I'm not a swimmer at all. I am a Brody. I hate the ocean, I hate lakes, I hate boats and boat rides at Disneyland. I hate the feeling of seaweed on your foot and the way the water makes the sand, the floor, rush away from you at a speed not revealed by the calming woosh of the shore. I hate pebbles that conceal the sea's weirdest creates, I hate eels and the thought of them looking at me. But do you know what I love? I love a water creature feature. A formula to stick to and stop the anxiety. If I cannot be on the water, at least let me watch other people having a bad time with it too.

There is quite literally a water nemesis for every fear you may have. I love Jaws, of course I do, but I also love some weirder shit, the weirder it gets and the more I can imagine this happening to me. Let's have a look at some lesser loved underwater creature features.

Orca: Killer Whale
Orca: Killer Whale is one of those films that people will say it's "so bad it's good", which is bullshit because Orca: Killer Whale is a fantastic story of revenge and maybe my favourite underwater creature feature. What makes Orca stand out is the fact that instead of siding with humans there is no doubt that this orca is the one in the right, a tale of revenge told from the point of view of a grieving parent, a widow with a grudge. Only this widow is a whale, and he will stop at nothing to make them pay. 

The end battle of the film is stand out piece of cinema, man and whale facing off to the death. Richard Harris plays the gruff and rough-around-the-edges sea dog who has wronged the whale, seemingly Harris understood the script enough not to make his character sympathetic. The end battle where he yells in frustration "what are you?" shows that his character never really understood what he did wrong and because of that he must pay. 

Wrongly lumped in with Jaws spin-offs, Orca: Killer Whale is a stand alone film with something to say. Sure, maybe it is pretty goofy on the surface to see a whale cause a whole gas line explosion from the ocean, but considering the true life story this was based on, the heart behind it is astounding.

Piranha II: The Spawning
Where as O:KW made us sympathetic to its monster, some films take a completely different approach. Jaws never killed just to eat, that's what makes Jaws so scary, the shark was just killing for pleasure, leaving body parts maimed but not chewed. Jaws was the embodiment of evil, and that's why it will always be the best. It doesn't matter if you have a shark expert and a fishing expert with you, Jaws is smarter.

Some underwater beasts are not so smart. In Piranha II: The Spawning the titular Piranha's from Dante's excellent first instalment have left the lake, made their way to the sea, developed wings and got hungry. In the forgotten James Cameron (yes, really) horror, these fish will stop at nothing for a midnight snack, and even in this instance you can understand the reasoning for their descent onto the hapless resort inhabitants. Fish gotta eat, it just sucks these babies can fly now.

Piranha II followed a very similar formula to Jaws with entertaining results. Set on a beach resort in a gentile paradise, only a few plucky residents (hello Lance Henriksen) are taking the impending doom seriously. You have the greedy resort owner and a plethora of seriously weird holiday makers in the mix. What Jaws really succeeded at was having the strange residents of Amityville Island being just as entertaining to watch on land as they were getting eaten in the water, and this sequel took more than a generous cue from this. 

Plankton
The good thing about making your monster from the sea abyss is that you can literally do anything you want and no one can say it's unrealistic because really, do we even know what is lurking down there? What delicious unknown delicacies are sperm whales going to the depth of the oceans to find? What creature was such a throat to the blue whale that is became so big? What are these weird alien looking beasts that keep washing up on shorelines

Plankton, also known as Creatures from the Abyss is a feverish descent into a neon and bubblegum hell as unsuspecting teens board an abandoned yacht, only to find there is a species of contaminated plankton that is turning everyone into mutant fishbeasts, out for nubile blood.

The film is up there with some of the most bananas effects I have seen in cinematic history but the real clincher is the fact that I had never even considered plankton to be something to worry about. Granted, I am not likely to start doing plankton experiments and accidentally unleashing evil, but then again to the anxious mind, you never know.

Island Crabs
And maybe whilst we're on the subject of weird fears, watching a giant crab dismantle an entire beach front condo is up there with one of the worst scenarios I can imagine happening to me. Thankfully I will always be too broke to own a house, let alone prime beach front real estate. 

Creature features sell you on a concept, they tap into a fear you didn't even know you had and play off of it. Is an unconvincing huge crab with big foam pincers really threatening? Not at all, but in the murky midnight beach it suddenly becomes a terror. Really that is the beauty of films isn't it, taking wires and exoskeletons and turning them into fantasies that stick with you.

Piranha 3DD
How about playing off two juxtaposing ideas to create ultimate terror? Probably my favourite niche water horror genre is theme park attraction horror. First seen in the ingenious and much (unfairly) derided Jaws 3, taking a concept of a safe, fun day out and unleashing hell is something that repulses and draws me in in equal measure. What is better than lifting the curtain of apparent safety and exposing the horrors of the world to children or teens out for a good time? The shark tunnel in Jaws 3 has stick with me since I was little, I think about it every time I go to an aquarium, and really how can you say a film is shit if it sticks with you for 29 years and every shark tunnel you ever walk through, anxious, heartbeat in your ears, waiting for the ambush.

Creepshow 2
Innocence mixed with the inherent evil of dark, murky water is something often explored but never so well as with The Raft, the Stephen King adaption slap bang in the middle of Creepshow 2. The Raft was a source for much nighttime terror for me. I read the story in a Point Horror phase of my pre-teens and never ever forgot it. I used to stare into the pond in our back garden and imagine the scum on the top was corrosive and ready for a human flesh snack. What the water teaches us, with it's unexplored depths is that something as unassuming as an oil slick is out to get you. The Raft is a cautionary tale for what, having fun? Cooling off in the summer? The teens in this story did nothing wrong in the first place and yet they have been chosen to die, because water does not care if you live or die, or if you smoke, drink or have sex. Everyone is fair game.

Sleepaway Camp
Sometimes there doesn't even need to be a monster int he water. Sometimes the water will warp your mind and make you a cold-blooded killer. In summer camp whodunnit Sleepaway Camp, someone is offing the campers one by one, all at the backdrop of a perfect lake. Bodies turn up in canoes, and children are orphaned by speedboats. Water is the central basis for everything leading up to the death of Sleepaway Camp.

Donkey Punch
Sleepaway Camp is not the only film to explore water as a prison, when you are in the middle of the ocean you can be the freest you have ever felt, but ultimately you are a prisoner of your surroundings. This is explored in thriller Donkey Punch, where the film takes place on a small, cramped boat where everyone gets a bit murderous.

Whereas Chief Brody is a prisoner of a shark because he lives on an Island, the girls of Donkey Punch are prisoners too. Donkey Punch plays out a scenario when the "flight" option of fight or flight is taken away. Out at sea there are no laws, and it is certainly lawless.

Friday the 13th
So what can we learn from underwater creature features? That zombies can walk under water, that undead pirates roam uncharted seas, that all manner of creatures are yet to be discovered, waiting to eat us, that Godzilla will awaken from his slumber, that ghosts embody water as much as they do your attic. That no body of water is safe and even drinking it may be bad for you. It's okay to be anxious, movies have always got your back for reasons why you should be.

Friday the 13th








Robyn is one half of Bimbo Movie Bash, an avid fan of Angel Delight and a Pee Wee apologist.

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