Alligator (1980)

Alligator is the correct and proper way to make a giant critter movie. People create the monster. Monster eats people.

A vacationing couple and their daughter watch an alligator nearly bite a man’s leg off at a hick circus in Missouri. Struck by the wonder of this magic moment, they buy their little girl her own baby gator from a nearby huckster.

Soon after the family’s return to Chicago, Dad flushes the little lizard down the crapper. See you later, alligator.

Fast forward 12 years and there’s a monster-sized alligator in the sewer.

While we could blame the irresponsible father who bought the damn thing in the first place, John Sayles’ civic conspiracy-minded script points the guilty finger at Slade (Dean Jagger), a cadaverous old CEO whose company’s clandestine experiments with growth hormones have dramatically affected the local food chain.

Troubled-but-honest cop David Madison (Robert Forester) is the detective saddled with the thankless job of going into the sewer and capturing the rampaging reptile. Through his frustrating quest, Sayles and director Lewis Teague reveal that corrupt politicians and muckraking journalists are no help whatsoever, and deserve to be eaten.

Madison enlists the help of gorgeous herpetologist Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker) in an effort to get inside the lizard brain, while the mayor (Jack Carter) brings in famous big game hunter Colonel Brock (Henry Silva) to slay the beast.

When Madison’s investigation gets too close to Slade Industries, the spineless mayor has him fired, removing the one competent person in Chicago that’s committed to stopping the creature.

Soon the alligator is popping up all over the place. A backyard swimming pool, a nearby canal, dark alleys, and eventually the posh wedding at Slade Mansion, where the monster eats its fill of the elite guest list and dispenses justice at the same time.

The reason Alligator is revered as a classic of the genre, is usually attributed to the presence of Sayles, who went on to direct lauded art-house fare like Matewan, Lone Star, and Passion Fish, making him a favorite among the well-heeled brie and festival crowd.

It doesn’t hurt that plot and characters mirror the Jaws template, even twisting the knife a little deeper into the culpability of swinish local officials.

The cast of marvelous professionals, including Forester, Riker, Silva, and Michael Gazzo as a beleaguered police chief, really nail the story in place and bring it to life. Every actor, from top to bottom, brings humor and humanity to their roles, and that gives the production a big lift.

Even ancient faces like Jagger and Mike Mazurki get a little screen time!

And let’s not forget the titular terror. There’s no CGI here, just miniature sets and strong practical effects that emphasize flailing bodies in the gator’s mouth, with blood gushing, and bones crunching.

As it should be. People getting eaten by monsters is, perhaps, the highest form of cinema.

The Requin (2022)

What the hell is a “Requin?”

Oh, it’s French for shark. Seems odd to name the movie after a character that doesn’t even show up for the first hour.

Prior to the shark’s arrival, we get Alicia Silverstone emoting all over the place as a woman on a tropical vacation with her husband (James Tupper).

Jaelyn (Silverstone) is having trouble getting her groove back after a recent bloody miscarriage. She and hubby Kyle take an exotic trip to coastal Vietnam, where a recuperative idyl is interrupted by a storm so fierce, their little hut on the beach is pulled out to sea.

As if they didn’t face enough obstacles as a couple.

The bickering duo spend a few months adrift (it sure feels like it, anyway) until the signal fire they build to attract planes and ships burns up their raft.

Still no shark.

Kyle and Jaelyn eventually reach a place in their relationship (and in the ocean) where they’re comfortable forgiving each other and working together to achieve mutual goals.

It’s at this point, about an hour into the movie, that director Le-Van Kiet finds the key to the shark cage. Suddenly the water is full of fins, despite the fact Kyle has been gushing Type O since Day One.

Rather than continue to listen to his batty wife, Kyle manages to get his legs eaten, effectively freeing his soul to go anywhere else.

I would like to offer a modest round of applause to Kyle, who never stops being a supportive, caring spouse, even after many hours spent floating in a water tank with a cranky costar. His ability to crack jokes in an effort to buoy his wife’s ever-changing moods is nothing less than heroic.

“I’m going to ask for a discount on the room,” he quips, earning him a brief smile.

As for Miss Silverstone, she endures mounting misery in true Perils Of Pauline fashion. One shark in particular (they named the movie after him!) pursues Jaelyn and devours the Vietnamese fisherman (Danny Chung) who rescues her, because no good deed goes unpunished.

The Requin is a big bucket of smelly chum with Amateur Hour special effects, but you kind of want to see it through—if only to find out how much worse things get for Alicia Silverstone, who is clearly having a real bad year.

Boar (2017)

Boar is an Aussie animal-attack flick about a small outback community of ranchers threatened by a gigantic, bloodthirsty pig.

Yes, I know it sounds like Razorback (1979). When the star of the movie is a massive swine, comparisons are inevitable.

For my money, writer-director Chris Sun accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do, namely, make an old-fashioned thriller about a giant critter on a rampage that racks up a hella high body count.

It helps greatly that cinematography and practical creature effects were areas of focus for Sun. He dexterously shuffles hog-o-vision POV stalking camera with flying tracking shots of victims trying to escape the oncoming Pork Chop Express in ways that maximize impending terror.

When poor Blue (Roger Ward) has to make a stand against the monstrous boar, the buildup is dizzying, with cameras swooping and circling around him like vultures.

The cast of familiar faces include John Jarratt (Wolf Creek) and Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects) in non-maniac roles.

In fact, Jarratt, who played one of the most cruel and violent killers ever in Wolf Creek, is borderline heroic here. He risks his life, unarmed, to rescue some old-looking teenage campers who’ve pitched their tents in the pig’s path of destruction.

It’s a refreshingly uncharacteristic touch, in a movie that’s full of them. Another example is heroic hulk Bernie (Nathan Jones, think Jason Statham Down Under) launching into a gleeful rap-a-long of “Ice Ice Baby” that reminds me of Quint’s crew enjoying a song in Jaws—a timely comic moment shortly before the shit hits the fan.

There are a number of such moments in Boar, particularly in the beery banter between drinking buddies Ken (Jarratt) and Blue, who are forced to put down their Fosters and run for their lives.

Blue yells at Ken for not loading his rifle before they drunkenly embark on a midnight run to track the creature.

“Well, I never reckoned I’d run into a pig the size of a rhino out here!” Ken retorts.

The “out here” Ken refers to is the beautiful Mary Valley in Queensland, Australia, whose bucolic splendors are never less than gorgeous. Even while characters plan, plot, and panic over their porky predicament, the scenery remains a sparkling gem.

Taken as a whole, Boar isn’t a bore; there are too many good things going on to complain about the uneven pace or a few CGI pig shots that don’t cut it.

Your time invested will be paid off in quality entertainment. You’re welcome.

They Remain (2018)

Two biologists working for an anonymous corporation are dispatched to the former site of a Manson-type cult compound to investigate strange animal behavior in the area.

Keith (William Jackson Harper) thoroughly explores the acreage, setting up camera feeds to monitor the fauna. Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) examines the data trying to find anomalies.

This goes on for the majority of the movie, as we observe the scientific method gradually give way to something far older and more primitive.

As so often happens, the more time they spend at the accursed locale, the more things break down. Keith hears voices. Jessica hears knocking at the door. Keith chases a wolf. Keith and Jessica drink whiskey.

They Remain is a subdued film, and it helps if you’re in the mood for subtlety. Writer-director Philip Gelatt adapted Laird Barron’s 30 for the screenplay, and it’s told largely from Keith’s perspective, which gets less reliable as time rolls on.

“I trust everybody, just not people,” he says to Jessica during one of their Happy Hours.

Keith dutifully collects his data, but the more he ventures out into the silent forest the less confident, and more unmoored he becomes.

Jessica, who is white, is the obsessive one, and Keith, a black man, worries that she’s not telling him the truth about their situation. Though he’s an experienced woodsman, he finds that his senses aren’t much help when faced with something that doesn’t track like an average specimen.

In fact, we’re never quite certain who is observing whom in They Remain. Whether it’s ghosts, hallucinations, cave dwellers, or just the effects of isolation, the feeling of someone watching is quite inescapable.

In scene after scene, Gelatt’s camera finds Keith hunkered down in the bush, but he doesn’t blend into his surroundings at all. He’s nervous because he isn’t safe, and he can’t hide in what is rapidly shaping up to be a hostile environment.

That’s a scary position to be in. They Remain is a profoundly unsettling movie and a very effective one.

Monstrum (2016)

Directed and co-written by South Korean filmmaker Jong-ho Huh, Monstrum is an exquisitely crafted 16th century period piece about a legendary beast that is decimating the population of Mount Inwangsan.

It is also a very astute political thriller about a beleaguered king (Park Hee Soon) who is being undermined by his cabinet ministers. The powers behind the throne conspire to keep the peasants wary and fearful by fueling rumors of a horrible creature that not only kills its victims but spreads the plague throughout the countryside.

Naturally, the peasants would like to see something done to mitigate the mutilations, so the king summons a loyal general (Kim Myung-min) to lead a party of warriors and farmers to hunt down and destroy the thing known as Monstrum.

The plot bubbles with palace intrigue and betrayals as a persistent rumor turns flesh (fur) in the form of a monstrous black cat that’s grown to massive proportions thanks to a steady diet of disease-ridden corpses.

The Monstrum itself isn’t the best CGI critter ever, but it’s far from the worst. Thematically, it represents man-made corruption, dishing out death as an equal opportunity destroyer, feasting on peasant and noble alike.

The monster is generally on the money in Monstrum, but the movie’s also chockful of superb swordplay and martial arts choreography that dazzles the senses. It’s no Crouching Tiger, but it’s definitely a hidden gem.

It also boasts terrific cast chemistry and you’ll have no trouble rooting for the scrappy band of heroes that takes on the vicious monster and stands up to a cadre of treacherous politicians.

And like Masque of the Red Death or Brotherhood of the Wolf, Monstrum uses a deadly plague to illustrate the indifference of the aristocracy to the suffering of an impoverished working class.

Twas ever thus.

We Need To Do Something (2021)

There are moments in We Need To Do Something in which director Sean King O’Grady and writer Max Booth III manage to make us forget that the movie is mostly about an annoying family trapped in their bathroom.

There is a powerful storm. Dad, Mom, daughter Melissa, and son Bobby hole up in the master bath. A tree crashes through the roof imprisoning the bickering clan in the can.

The presence of a rattlesnake in the restroom livens things up a bit, and provides some semblance of actual danger.

Further, the subplot about Melissa (Sierra McCormick) and her girlfriend Amy (Lisette Alexis) casting a spell on a nosy classmate that apparently results in the Earth’s destruction is intriguing, and could have been developed.

However, there is just so much horror that can be plumbed from living in a loo. Robert (Pat Healy), the twitchy family patriarch proves to be utterly useless in a crisis, impotently raging around the room, making life miserable for everyone—including the viewer.

As the face of toxic masculinity, Healy is an angry, unstable child whose very presence makes any situation 100-times more unbearable.

This gets old real fast.

Diane (Vinessa Shaw), Robert’s wife, is preoccupied with buoying Bobby’s (John James Cronin) spirits, particularly after the latter’s encounter with the roving rattler.

Single-set monotony takes over, and the lack of legitimate threats beyond Robert’s rapid decline into lunacy (it was a short trip) do not inspire much in the way of suspense.

Will Melissa cop to the crime of crashing civilization? Will anyone survive the dangers lurking beyond the camera’s reach? Will someone please kill Dad?

In the final reckoning, We Need To Do Something falls short of achieving any sort of entertainment momentum, since it’s forced to rely on offscreen developments to move the story forward.

Rather than a movie, Max Booth’s script suggests the sort of exercise in stale irony that one endures in community college playwriting classes.

Feel free to skip this class. You won’t learn anything.

The Devil Below (2021)

It’s always the right time for comfort-food horror, and in The Devil Below we are served up another doomed expedition searching for answers in a subterranean hellhole.

We’ll have a double helping of monsters, and don’t spare the giblets, please!

How can you screw up such a basic recipe? Director Bradley Parker and writers Eric Scherbarth and Stefan Jaworski manage to do so almost immediately and never really gain their balance.

The Devil Below is a rote, budget-strapped feature, which wouldn’t be so bad, except it also fails to register any decent gore or creature shocks, quite an unforgiveable sin in my book.

A ragtag team (is there any other kind?) of geologists guided by Alpha Gal Arianne (Maria Sanz) is tasked with investigating an Appalachian coal mine that’s been burning for decades.

They soon discover that the real cause for alarm is a race of tunneling trogs who can’t decide if they’re Lovecraftian (starfish face) or just mole people in baggy clothes.

It’s really hard to say, since we never get a proper look, but they do brandish a poison claw that immobilizes the victim. Shawn (Chinaza Uche), a soon-to-be late geologist hypothesizes that they’re a new species that colonizes, like insects, but that’s as far as the analysis goes.

Veteran character actor Will Patton is onboard as a grizzled mine owner trying to avenge his dead son, but despite everyone’s best intentions, we end up with a pale and bloodless version of The Descent, a movie that remains the undisputed high watermark in the Underground Horror genre.

With its modest body count and some of the vaguest monsters on the block, The Devil Below is below average viewing, and I’m stuck for a compelling reason to sit through it.

You have been warned.

The Cave (2005)

I vaguely remember seeing The Cave when it came out.

Unfortunately, my memories of it are jumbled together with Neil Marshall’s The Descent, a scarier, similarly themed movie that came out the same year.

Bad timing, I guess.

Upon revisiting The Cave, I’m inclined to sing its praises as a reasonably riveting action-horror hybrid that more than adequately meets the needs of any restless cinephile.

A healthy budget doesn’t hurt, either.

Nutshell: So there’s this uncharted system of underwater caves in the Carpathian Mountains, located beneath the remains of a mysterious church that was built to contain winged demons who would periodically emerge from the netherworld.

A team of macho cave divers and a few scientists suit up to explore the hole and end up trapped below the surface in a slimy, sunless world of highly adaptive parasites that cause the host to mutate into a highly adaptive cave monster.

The crew is led by determined dive-master Jack McCallister (Cole Hauser), who promises a way out of the mountain tomb, even as his own transformation becomes increasingly difficult to conceal.

When comparing The Cave and The Descent, it’s important to remember that the latter film is generally regarded as one of the best horror movies of the 21st century.

That said, The Cave is much better than I remember, and includes several harrowing scenes, none more so than spunky Charlie’s (Piper Perabo) spine-tingling aerial combat with a gargoyle.

Director Bruce Hunt constructs a crushing and claustrophobic underworld that pulses with genuine menace, while writers Tegan West and Michael Steinberg proffer a handful of characters worth rooting for.

Take a look around The Cave. It’s pretty cool, and you’ll adapt in no time.

 

Apollo 18 (2011)

Houston, we’ve got a problem. There’s life on the moon, and it ain’t lunar maidens in diaphanous gowns.

Buckle up for another found-footage adventure, this one finding its way back to Earth from the cold embrace of space. Apollo 18 reveals classified information about a secret moon landing in 1969 that was completely on the down low from the American public.

Mission Commander Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen), Captain Ben Anderson (Warren Christie), and Lieutenant Commander John Grey (Ryan Robbins) are dispatched to the moon under the direction of the Department of Defense, to set up a monitoring device to keep tabs on the Russians.

That’s the story, anyway.

Walker and Anderson discover a derelict Russian spacecraft and the remains of a Soviet cosmonaut on the lunar surface. Shortly thereafter, Walker has a close encounter with a scuttling moon spider and the mission is pretty much FUBAR.

There are many parallels to Alien, including a critter gestation period and the inevitable expendability of the crew, a development that does not sit well with the participants. Indeed, the casual disregard for the safety of the astronauts by Mission Control is more frightening than the moon spiders themselves.

With Apollo 18, director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego and writer Brian Miller play the slow-burn card to a fault. They establish a suffocating atmosphere of dread and doom in outer space with limited sets and props—and action.

There are moments when the audience feels like they’re the ones lost in space, adrift in an indifferent narrative.

Ultimately, it’s worth the trip. There’s more than enough creeping unease to keep us tuned in for the duration, as three astronauts transition from All-American heroes with The Right Stuff, to unwitting hosts with interstellar predators.

The Pyramid (2014)

What, no Mummy?

You’d think a horror movie called The Pyramid would have the decency to trot out a few bandage-wrapped shufflers for Old Times’ sake, but director Gregory Levasseur (better known as the writer for High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes) decided to go another way.

Nutshell: An archaeological expedition enters a previously undiscovered pyramid, awakening several inhabitants, including feline zombie servants of Bas, and apparently the god Anubis himself.

Egyptian curses. We never learn.

The defilers of the sacred tomb spend the majority of their screen time crawling through ancient, perfectly symmetrical tunnels in search of an exit, triggering deadly traps and getting mauled by a wrathful jackyl-headed CGI monster that’s actually not too shabby to behold.

The most riveting sequence involves a woman helplessly impaled on wooden stakes being slowly eaten by undead cats. Needless to say, this predicament doesn’t sit well with the victim, who howls for release.

Though The Pyramid is ostensibly a found-footage feature, the POV is all over the place so it’s best not to focus on this aspect.

Instead, settle in for a fast-moving conveyer belt of doomed tomb raiders meeting their fates in memorably macabre fashion.

Again, no mummies are featured in The Pyramid. But the curse is a killer.