The Changing Face of Monsters

Today’s monsters for children could be said to have changed over the last twenty years or so. Even though there were friendly monsters like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial [DVD] [1982]
in the past (who moved and talked like a toddler) we have seen a gradual change to less frightening monsters for children. This can be clearly shown in the visual difference between these Ladybird Classic books which have recently been reissued.

Here are pictures from the first copy of Dracula issued in the early 1980s which Jo had a copy of:

Dracula pic 1 (456x800) Dracula pic 2 (456x800)Dracula pic 3 (456x800)

Below is the recently released new version of Ladybird Classics: Dracula

You can see from the front cover that the illustrations in the new edition are much less scary. Dracula is not as threatening and almost looks like a businessman in a suit! The only thing that makes him seem like Dracula are the flocks of bats behind his cape!

Here is Jo’s copy of The Mummy which has not yet been reissued:

Mummy pic 1 (456x800)

Mummy pic 3 (456x800)

Mummy pic 2 (800x456)

When compared to the recently reissued version of Ladybird Classics: Frankenstein you can see the difference in the illustration just from the front cover which is much less scary.

This is interesting as I have not come across any books in my school library which have illustrations like the ones in the books from the 1980s. It seems that recent monsters for children have become far less threatening and scary for instance The Gruffalo which is not scary at all according to my younger sister because he looks funny and daft!

Even in films we can see the change as the monsters in Monsters Inc. [2002] [DVD] are not scary and even the monsters in Tim Burton films such as Frankenweenie [DVD] seem to be not that scary compared with films such as The Return to Oz or Watership Down which caused a stir recently when shown on TV at Easter time due to its disturbing scenes.

We then discussed computer games which I play and there is a game/app My Singing Monsters where you add friends and complete tasks in a tribe (again which is funny). In Minecraft (Xbox 360) too there are monsters but they are not very threatening. There are of course scarier monsters in computer games for older children and teenagers but for younger children most of the monsters do not seem to be that scary. Jo remembers playing games on her Sega Megadrive as a child and is sure that the monsters in these were scarier than newer ones.

So why are monsters aimed at children less threatening and scary than they were in the past? At CLC we think that there are two reasons for this. One, that children did not have easy access to information in the form of the internet and social media so they could not find out as easily if the monster was real or not. Whereas if a monster was scary today, children could find out straight away if it was real and then  potentially make the story less scary than the filmmaker’s or illustrator’s original intentions. Also, children were far less supervised years ago and regularly went out in small groups on their own from Junior School age, so parents were perhaps less protective overall.

So what will monsters for children be like in the future? At the moment we seem to have gone from one extreme to the other, so maybe monsters will get a little more scary (but only a little) bit by bit over time. We shall have to wait and see.

There’s a Monster in My Book!

Literary Monsters & The Psychological Thriller Phenomenon

There are so many stories featuring monsters in literature that have been adapted into films as I explored in my previous post. These range from the times of ancient mythology, to the ‘person as monster’ phenomenon that has been increasingly popular in the twentieth century and into the present day in the genre of the psychological thriller. Monsters in ancient mythology such as Greek mythology served a purpose in that they existed for various reasons one was to highlight a narrative of ‘heroism’ such as Theseus slaying the Minotaur or Perseus slaying Medusa. The other was perhaps to use the narratives of the story as a warning, such as to not to indulge in various sins such as vanity or greed else you might be turned into a hideous monster.

As I have already examined different kinds of monsters in my film post, for this literature post I am going to examine the extraordinary phenomenon of the psychological thriller genre that although has existed since at least the nineteenth century in published form, has enjoyed a tremendous rise of popularity in recent years.

This recent phenomenon is due in part to Gone Girl from the US and The Girl on the Train from the UK. I have read both of these titles (like many others) and seen the excellent film adaptation of Gone Girl and anticipate the upcoming film adaptation of The Girl on the Train (though the location has changed from the UK to the US, so we’ll see how this translates). Why was Gone Girl so successful? Gone Girl is a strong narrative driven tale with an unreliable narrator and has an excellent twist in the tale that many could not anticipate. It also fit the zeitgeist of the time focusing on the period of economic uncertainty in the recent recession where traditionally people were meant to focus on the things that matter such as the security of the family unit, but what if this unit was dysfunctional and could not be trusted? Gillian Flynn examined all of these themes and topped them with a main character who could also be a dangerous psychopath. For these reasons and the word of mouth phenomenon that this generated I believe this explains why Gone Girl was so successful.

Ever since the success of Gone Girl, publishers have been searching for the next psychological thriller to replicate the success of this story. The Girl on the Train had a huge publicity and marketing push here in the UK. It was advertised everywhere here and obviously had a great visual appeal that could be easily translated into film. I do like the story of The Girl on the Train but I feel that it is not quite as strong story as that of Gone Girl as the main character is unreliable (an alcoholic) and has more moments of weakness and I perhaps not very likeable.

I have read several psychological thriller novels recently, and they keep on coming and will do so for the rest of this year. I have read some that I certainly believe could be as successful as Gone Girl and contain all the essential elements of a psychological thriller. So what are the key components of the successful psychological thriller?

Key Elements of Psychological Thrillers:

Unreliable Narrators (sometimes this is because the narrator is a child or it could be due to substance impairment, or they may be a psychopath).

The Psychopath (person as a monster) – sometimes this is the narrator themselves, other times this is the threat to the main character such as the husband or wife or mother or father of the narrator.

The Unsafe Home and Domestic Environment (occasionally this may be a school, workplace or the virtual world) – what was once considered safe is no longer and causes uncertainty. Often the protagonist is trapped in some way.

A Twist in the Tale – This is something that should not be anticipated beforehand to work successfully.

A Criminal Element – A murder or threat of murder or kidnapping is usually present.

Recent Recommended Psychological Thrillers

Here are some of my recent favourite psychological thrillers that have been published:

Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin. A man convicted for a murder he may not have committed (is he a psychopath or completely innocent?). A heroine who can’t remember the crime? (unreliable narrator). A miscarriage of justice? If so, then is the killer still out there and a threat? Read this book to find out…

When She Was Bad by Tammy Cohen. Everything is turned upside down in this workplace-set psychological thriller. The familiar becomes unfamiliar and a close knit office unit is blasted open into an environment of severe distrust all due to a new employee. A Lord of the Flies atmosphere abounds and tension reigns…

The Mistake I Made by Paula Daly: The first Paula Daly book I read was on a train journey and I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t want the journey to end! The Mistake I Made is a psychological thriller with an economic focus. Single mother Roz is financially struggling and accepts an indecent proposal style arrangement with the rich Scott Elias. Instead of making her life easier she begins to wonder if she has made a deal with the devil?

Behind Closed Doors by B A Parris. An important story about domestic violence, especially psychological abuse. Jack is such a controlling and manipulative character (the psychopath) and their home is a virtual prison to his wife Grace. A strong novel and compelling read.

Luckiest Girl Alive  by Jessica Knoll. Already optioned for a film this book explores the story of Ani FaNelli, who is now living a successful life in New York. She is forced to examine a notorious incident that occurred when she was a teenager at Bradley School. This novel fits the psychological thriller genre perfectly, it takes an environment which is meant to be safe (in this case a school) and turns it on its head. It examines sexism and bullying and the negative outcomes that can occur when a toxic environment of “athletic popularity” is allowed to flourish in a school.

The Missing  by C. L. Taylor – A missing child and an amnesiac mother? Unreliable narration and threat abound in this novel as mother Claire feels intense guilt that she did not pay enough attention to her son Billy. As the novel progresses Claire’s uncertainty increases and she is not sure who to trust, even those closest to her…

Upcoming Psychological Thrillers

Here are some upcoming psychological thrillers that are soon to be published and represent the best of the genre to come. Time to get your pre-order in!

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
Dear Amy by Helen Callaghan
Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg
The Silent Dead (Reiko Himekawa #1) by Tetsuya Honda
All Things Cease to Appear by Elisabeth Brundage
Twisted River by Siobhan McDonald

Do you think that this genre will run and run? What psychological thrillers have impressed you recently? Let us know on Twitter and Facebook.

A Monster History

The term ‘monster’ is one that brings about quite a mixed reaction to people depending on the context in which it is said. It can be seen to describe a certain character such as in the theme of horror where Monsters here include include ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ or a Vampire such as ‘Dracula.’ It is a term that is sometimes used to describe a horrific person, such as when you say man or monster? The word ‘Monster’ has quite a diverse history.

Monsters in Europe

Monsters in Europe are originally seen as creatures with a somewhat unnatural or supernatural element to them. Many ancient mythologies such as Greece would discuss monsters such as harpies (half bird half women creatures), that would harass people by stealing their food. These ideas of monsters would develop into creatures of folklore and fiction, particularly the Gothic fiction genre that was prevalent throughout the Victorian age. The story of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is one example. Indeed, the idea of monster would take on a role as a seductive, but dangerous supernatural being in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Dracula seemed to represent the dangers of uncontrolled sexuality, a subject that would have been frowned upon by the status quo at the time. It would seem that monsters in Europe would come to represent what was considered taboo at the time and perhaps was a way for society to represent this without having to show a person as responsible.

Monsters in Japan

On the other side of the coin, Monsters have a different perception in Japan. Whilst it is true that there are monsters such as Godzilla who terrorize people. Japan has a much more diverse attitude to what ‘monsters’ are and have often been seen as friendly creatures. The Hakutaku ‘monster’ is considered a wise ox-like creature that is seen as a sign of good luck. Further, the Shōjō are creatures that are jolly and enjoy the finer things in life. The Japanese view monsters as supernatural beings that symbolise both good and bad. Further, many Japanese cartoons that are targeted at children have shown monsters in a heroic light some examples being: Pocket Monsters (Pokemon in the west), My Neighbour Totoro and Digimon to name but three. Perhaps, the west has taken some inspiration from these with such characters as Shrek.

Painting of Hakutaku 'Monster'
Painting of Hakutaku ‘Monster’

Contemporary Monsters

Monsters today are often used to describe controversial people such as dictators giving some distance to their humanness. The term monster in this context suggests that horrific acts could not be purported by a man, but rather a monster. There is often stories in tabloid newspapers describing a killer as a “monster” or becoming a “monster” it is almost as if the term monster now means someone losing their humanity, and becoming a vicious beast.

What is your view on what a monster is? Let us know in the comments below.

A Movie Monster Menagerie!

For our theme of ‘Monsters’ this month, I thought it would be a fun idea to list some of our favourite movie monsters, recommend the ultimate monster film and to muse about the future of monsters in cinema.

Fearsome ‘Movie Monsters’

The Great White Shark in ‘Jaws’

Jaws [DVD] [1975]the infamous great white shark has to be included as it is such an iconic movie monster. Yes, the special effects weren’t great then but that is what is go effective about this monster as for a large majority of the film you only either see things from the shark’s point of view (such as in the opening sequence) or you may just see a fin. The film-makers had to be innovative and played on the fear of people that things are more scary when they can’t actually see them but use their imagination instead. A classic cinematic technique that has been used in horror films since the very beginning of cinema.

Godzilla in ‘Godzilla’

I love Godzilla [1954] [DVD] My dad is a huge B-movie horror and sci-fi film fan so I have watched quite a few of these films. I remember watching Godzilla vs. King Kong as a child and wanting Godzilla to win as they fought in the sea! I also always liked dinosaurs as a child so wonder if my affinity to Godzilla is from this time? Godzilla is interesting because he is a dinosaur-like monster awakened from extinction due to the effects of nuclear war. As the first Godzilla film was created in 1954 in Japan this must have been inextricably linked with their experiences of the after effects of nuclear catastrophe. Godzilla has been made several times since it’s first outing in 1954 but for true authenticity and to learn about the origins of this monster then I recommend watching the original.

Werewolves in ‘The Company of Wolves’

Though there are many werewolf depictions on cinema, my favourite has to be in the film The Company of Wolves (Special Edition) [DVD] [1984]This film is adapted from the short story by Angela Carter (who also wrote the film’s screenplay). This is a feminist and psychological re-interpretation of the story of Red Riding Hood. Red Riding Hood is depicted as a girl who is growing from a child to a woman. Although the wolves are seen as something to be afraid of initially, Red Riding Hood does not become so [SPOILER]  and in the end she becomes a wolf-woman who runs with the wolf pack. It is quite a strange film and would benefit from you reading the short story beforehand contained in Angels Carter’s book of re-imagined fairy tales The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories

Dracula the Vampire in ‘Dracula’

There have also been many movie representations of the vampire ‘Dracula.’ Among my favourite interpretations though are the classic Hammer Horror film Dracula (Blu-ray + DVD) [1958]with Christopher Lee in the titular role. Also, though this is not strictly a film as it was on television I also think Louis Jordan’s interpretation of Dracula in the BBC’s Count Dracula [DVD]from 1977 was also great. The latter production is fairly faithful to the original story as it contains the character of Renfield who is often omitted from adaptations.

Vampires in ‘Interview with the Vampire’

Another great vampire film, though it does not contain Dracula it does feature Brad Pitt, Christian Slater and Antonio Banderas, which is always a bonus! This film is based on Interview With The Vampire: Number 1 in series (Vampire Chronicles)by Anne Rice. The story really encompasses the rich, creepy Southern Gothic atmosphere (even though it is set in other countries) the images of hanging Spanish moss and cemeteries. I think it must have been an influence on later Southern Gothic supernatural novels such as the entertaining Sookie Stackhouse series and TV adaptation True Blood – Complete Season 1-7 [DVD] [2014]

Benign ‘Movie Monsters’

Some monsters are benign in film representation. Monsters are often used to represent the ‘Other,’ a difference that can alarm people if they choose to only look on the surface and not beyond. These films often have a message that we need to be kind to others regardless of how they look on the outside.

Edward in ‘Edward Scissorhands’

Edward Scissorhands [1991] [DVD]has to be one of Tim Burton’s best films. Edward and his creator live in a Gothic castle on a mountain overlooking a kitsch American version of suburbia. He is discovered by an Avon lady who decides to adopt him and bring him home to her identikit house in suburbia. He meets her daughter and they fall in love. Moments of comedy (such as when the ladies queue up to have their hair cut by Edward) but also tragedy ensue due to Edward’s difference and the people’s suburban intolerance. Edward Scissorhands as a monster represents an updated kind of Frankenstein’s creature. The influence of fairy tales such as the story of Beauty and the Beast can also be seen. References to Hammer Horror can be seen in this film such as Edward’s creator being played by Hammer stalwart Vincent Price.

Yoda in ‘Empire Strikes Back’

Who doesn’t love Yoda! First featured in the original second Star Wars film Empire Strikes Back (1980) Yoda is a strange looking creature but is a powerful Jedi master. He is fierce but very wise and trains Luke Skywalker up to be a Jedi. He is also dryly humours and has become a huge popular cultural character quoted on everything from T-shirts to TV adverts!

E.T. in ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial [DVD] [1982]has to be one of the best examples of a benign cinematic monster. E.T. is a classic and great film that many people have watched, and have either cried, or know of someone who has cried at the end! It was clever how the film-makers created E.T. to move and talk like a human toddler, so though he is an alien and looks very different there are some characteristics within him that we can all relate to. E.T.’s first interaction is with Elliott a ten year old boy who forms a bond with him and tries to protect him. A clever twist in the story is that the Government scientists are portrayed as shady evil characters as opposed to E.T., Elliott and his family and friends. There are some notable scenes such as the flying BMX scene and of course the ultra-sad ending.

Gizmo in ‘Gremlins’

Gremlins – 30th Anniversary Edition [Blu-ray] [1984] [Region Free]is quite a dark, slightly sinister film. Gizmo is an adorable cute fluffy mogwai (monster) bought from a shop in Chinatown as a Christmas present from a father for his son Billy. He will stay benign if he is kept according to three strict rules: he is not exposed to sunlight or bright light, he does not get wet and is never fed after midnight. If any of these things happen then either Gizmo will die or will spawn a series of evil gremlins that not only cause havoc but also kill and torture humans!

The T-Rex and Velociraptors in ‘Jurassic Park’

Are dinosaurs monsters? If they are placed in a situation with humans then I would say so! The T-Rex and velociraptors steal the show in Jurassic Park [DVD]as they are arguably the most dangerous dinosaurs that the humans encounter in the film. Jurassic Park is based on the novel by Michael Crichton posed the interesting theory that if science were able to extract and clone dinosaur DNA then dinosaurs could potentially be re-created. If you add to this mix an eccentric entrepreneur who is fixated on creating the ultimate theme park then you have a potential disaster. The two best scenes in the film feature these the T-Rex and the Velociraptors. First we have the infamous build up to seeing the T-Rex with the glass of water vibrating. Here we see a nod to Spielberg’s Jaws’ heritage as we are scared initially of what we can’t see, but this time when we do see the monster, the effects live up to the initial fear. The velociraptors chasing the children in the kitchen is also a very good scene, scary!

People as ‘Movie Monsters’

Perhaps though the most scary monsters are not those that represent the ‘Other’ but those that look exactly like us and are expert at blending in. Often adapted from their primary source in literature, the psychopath has long been a horror movie favourite and is presented in films such as ‘Patrick Bateman’ in American Psycho [DVD] [2000] and ‘Hannibal Lector’ in The Silence of the Lambs [DVD] [1991]Nazis are often represented as ‘people monsters’ as can be seen in films such as ‘Amon Goeth’ in Schindler’s List – Special Edition [DVD] (1993)Bond villains are often portrayed as being psychopaths Raoul Silva in the excellent Skyfall [DVD]is a good example. Captain Jack Randall is also another example of a truly terrifying man in Outlander – Complete Season 1 [DVD]Sometimes, humans as monsters are presented in a ‘comic book style’ sort of way to make them less scary good examples of this can be seen in the character of ‘Han’ in Enter The Dragon (Uncut) [DVD] [1973]and in endless Bond villains from the early films. At other times cinematic psychopaths are presented as ruthless corporate figures such as the aforementioned ‘Patrick Bateman’ in American Psycho and arguably ‘Gordon Gecko’ in Wall Street [Special Edition] [1988] [DVD](who if not a fully blown psychopath, appears to have psychopathic tendencies). Examples of female psychopaths are depicted in films such as ‘Phyllis Dietrichson’ in Double Indemnity [DVD] [1944]‘Amy Elliot Dunne’ in Gone Girl [DVD] [2014]and ‘Jane Hudson’ in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? [Blu-ray] [1962] [Region Free]From these examples we can see that film-makers have experimented with tactics of scaring us by presenting a monster in our midst as a terrifying set-up.

The Ultimate Monster Movie – ‘Clash of The Titans’ (1981)

Ray Harryhausen was a classic monster model maker and animator. He is responsible for bringing some of the iconic monsters to the screen (such as the skeleton army, Hydra, harpies and giant bronze man Talos) in Jason & the Argonauts [DVD] [1963] He is also responsible for the monsters in the film that I am going to nominate as the ultimate movie monster film, Clash Of The Titans [DVD] [1981]Forget the remake, the original Clash of the Titans is a great film to watch if you are a fan of movie monsters! This film also contains the ultimate mother of all movie monsters, ‘Medusa!’ Medusa is a snake like gorgon with hair made from living vipers! One glance from her can turn any living thing into stone. The scene where Perseus has to kill Medusa is the best in the film as it is so atmospheric and really builds up tension. Here we see Perseus as he tries to hide from Medusa and behead her in her shadowy underground lair list only by fire torches. This scene is pivotal, as Perseus has to defeat Medusa in order to obtain her head in order to defeat the Kraken (a giant sea monster that will devour his wife Andromeda within thirty days). Not only is Medusa an excellently animated monster but Clash of the Titans also contains a host of other excellent Harryhausen creations, including the huge Kraken, giant scorpions, Charon the skeleton ferryman, the devil like Calibos and Pegasus the last winged horse amongst others. Clash of the Titans also contains three Stygian witches who are blind but see by using a glass eye and also eat humans! All in all due to the sheer number of monsters this has to be the ultimate monster movie of all time!

The Future of ‘Movie Monsters’

As computer technology moves ever faster, film-makers reliance on digital effects and CGI grows. Whilst CGI can give us fantastic special effects an argument against the overuse of it could be that a film that relies completely on CGI may lose some of its resonance with spectators as it feels less real and film-makers can tend to rely less on traditional narrative techniques to build up tension such as we saw in Jaws.

The imagined unseen can be more scary than that which is visible. A good example of this is by viewing the Medusa scene from the original Clash of the Titans 1981 Medusa Scene and comparing it with the clip in the remake here. In my opinion the original scene builds up the tension beautifully and although it doesn’t have the digital effects, it draws the story out and makes it more menacing whereas the remake is just like a madcap, computer game chase free for all! The remake scene is not scary, there is much less tension and it loses it’s narrative flow.

CGI and digital effects in film can be a good thing as they speed up the process of film-making and you need less people to work on the film, all elements that will be attractive to investors. However, the increasing reliance on CGI and digital effects means that an incredible skill-set of artists and model-makers will be lost, film audiences lose out in that the narrative tension in films is arguably lessened and scenes are not given as much chance to build tension. The second reboot of the Star Wars films (Episodes 1-3) were criticised for exactly these reasons, there was an over reliance on digital effects at the expense of character and narrative development. Though arguably the new Star Wars film is meant to have addressed some of these issues and has pleased fans. The Harry Potter films whilst utilising digital effects also relied on sets and models too and seems to give hope that this is a balance that can be readdressed and successfully utilised in the future.

‘Monsters’ in Gardening

Monsters of the gardening world range from the delightful, such as the Monstera Deliciosa (the Swiss Cheese Plant) to the dreadful such as Fallopia Japonica (Japanese Knotweed).

The Swiss Cheese Plant (Monstera Deliciosa) which literally translates as Delicious Monster is a plant that some perhaps view as dated and rather boring. However it’s bold, larger than life appearance and associations with 1970s interior design undoubtedly make it one of the more iconic houseplants. In nature these plants are climbing vines that weave their way through trees in the jungles of Central and South America. However as a humble houseplant they are no less impressive.

A dusty Swiss Cheese Plant leaf

On the flip side to this, one plant admired by the Victorians for its quick growth and impressive vigour is Japanese Knotweed. Yet as has transpired in the last century and a half of it being in the UK it has become a menace. It can break through solid concrete and destroy properties. Once it is found on a patch of land it is an expensive and time consuming task to eradicate as it has a huge root system and can regenerate from tiny pieces of root left in the ground. It is truly a monster of the plant world that originates in a harsh volcanic landscape in Japan and has pests in its natural range to help keep it in check, but on the other side of the world with generous growing conditions and no pests it runs riot and causes untold damage.

Another monster of the plant world is the Gunnera tinctoria or giant rhubarb, native to temperate South America it grows very well in the UK and the leaves can become massive. Coupled with the long, spiky stems it can be an impressive sight when fully grown. Being non-native to the UK it has become a nuisance in some habitats, particularly in Harris in the Outer Hebrides. It is now spreading uncontrollably, it is covering over crofts and blocking up ditches.

A Gunnera just starting to regrow

In summary, monsters of the plant world come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are considered to be monsters for good reason. They are sometimes desirable, such as the Swiss Cheese Plant and in other cases detested and a widespread hazard such as Japanese Knotweed.