Can a trendy setting, cult actors and religious incest justify this retelling of a classic monster movie?
Intro by Phil
As students of writing know, setting plays an invaluable role in fiction, and in a horror film, it’s the most unnerving when nearly invisible. This seems counterintuitive, but think of the genre’s finest examples: The claustrophobic confines of an unmapped cave in The Descent; the ever-changing dreamscape of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street; the disorienting, maze-like hallways of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In all these films, the setting is a character on par with the living beings who inhabit it, something that feels simultaneously natural yet deeply unsettling. Even in a creature feature – where the driving force for mood and scares is supposedly a kick-ass beastie – an effective setting hints at the gruesomeness to come, but it does so without drawing overt attention to itself.
In terms of this all-important aspect of horror, the past few years have been defined by the gritty, grimy, untamed backwoods of America’s deep South. Perhaps it’s an unconscious reaction to the real-life horrors of Hurricane Katrina, or a sense that Louisiana swamps are now scarier than Appalachian wilds, but everyone from vampires to serial killers has found a home on the bayou. The strongest recent offerings turn the South into a brooding, dangerous place, from the understated bleakness of Georgia in AMC’s The Walking Dead to the trappings of Hoodoo magic in The Skeleton Key. Even a TV show like True Blood, which has slipped into outright silliness in later seasons, still ekes mileage from a weird-ass town like Bon Temps. Like many trends, though, a recognizable setting can be crutch for lazy filmmakers. The most dubious offenders use it to inject a ho-hum script with easy atmosphere, blatant stereotypes and requisite sketchy accents.
The 2011 film Creature was a relative latecomer to the southern-fried party, a box-office flop that boasted the alligator obsession of History’s Swamp People, sans cool airboats. The small-screen feel makes sense: Co-writer and first-time director Fred M. Andrews comes from a background in TV production, which makes his use of setting and space interesting to say the least (more on that to come). The film follows six gator-bait twentysomethings on a trip through rural Louisiana, a thickly-wooded, almost neon-green place with untouched swamps and abandoned cabins. While en route to New Orleans – Mardi Gras, baby! – the group stops at a rusty, run-down gas station operated by a handful of inbred religious folk, including a wife beater-wearing Sid Haig. There’s no gas, but Haig is helpful in other ways, telling the legend of a half-man/half-gator named “Lockjaw” and showing the out-of-towners an abandoned cabin owned by Grimly Boutine, an incestuous local who’s linked to the beast. The group decides to camp near the cabin, and from there, the script descends into a mish-mash of slasher flick whodunits, creature feature reveals and enough muddled religion to fuel its own church.
Creature is a self-proclaimed B-movie (at least after a disastrous box-office run), meaning plot and genuine scares can take second stage to more meta-textual distractions. Another element on par with a stellar setting – one practically exclusive to the horror genre – is the appearance of recognizable character actors. Unlike their A-list peers, who can occasionally overwhelm a project with movie-star personas (ahem, Tom Cruise), finding a cult-friendly face in a low-budget flick is akin to some in-game of “Where’s Waldo?”, a gleeful chance for horror buffs to test their knowledge by spouting off every film the actor has ever graced. It’s a bonding ritual – not to mention fun as hell – and Creature has it in boatloads. (Try and not smile when Haig appears, playing the typical Sid-Haig-in-a-horror-film role.) Add a couple beers to the mix and it’s a bona fide drinking game. We may have a weird little sub-culture here, but we like it just fine.
In the murky, water-logged end, though, Creature employs familiar faces and a flavor-of-the-decade setting to retell a story straight from monster movie history: 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. The sense of entering an alien world is prominent in both, and the titular monsters are more human than a mega-beast like Godzilla, with all the sexual messiness that implies. But a B-movie is hardly redeemable for homage, in-jokes and nudity alone, especially when it pulls from so many disparate sources. With that in mind, let’s go looking for Lockjaw.
Wanna watch? Creature is on Netflix Instant.
Chris: I believe the first thing I said to Phil after watching Creature was, “Dude, Creature starts out with grade-A tits.” And it is indeed true – you aren’t even two minutes in before you get a screen full of ‘em. Now that we got that outta the way… This is one of the few movies recently that has been focusing on the myths of the South; another one of its recent compatriots is Hatchet. I’m stoked to see the slasher films of now focusing on actual urban legends that began in the southern U.S. in this century. And as far-fetched as many of these stories can be, this one definitely kept my attention – maybe that was due to the inbred nature, or the fact that for 65 minutes I was dying to see what the half-man/half-gator looked like. Regardless, I was pretty hooked on the story. That’s not to say it was a great story, just to say I was hooked. Phil?
Phil: You’re remembering correctly – those were literally the first words out of your mouth, no “hello” or anything. I have to admit, though, the opening scene is a doozy for more than gratuitous nudity. It contains one of the film’s best attacks, and the gory reveal of our skinny-dipper-turned-amputee was shot and paced perfectly. Sadly, the film peaked in those first five minutes, and I don’t share your enthusiasm for the creature or plot. Between the crude characterizations, stereotypical hillbillys, half-assed religious overtones and a second-act twist that felt incredibly forced, it was too much of a muchness. I appreciate films that strive to combine many elements into a cohesive whole – sometimes it can be rewarding to slog through a story that doesn’t play by the rules, or one that gleefully subverts them like The Cabin in the Woods – but it takes a level of care Creature just doesn’t have. When a (supposedly) major character returns for a twist ending and the biggest shock is I forgot she existed, something isn’t clicking.
That said, I never thought of southern myths as being separate from a southern setting – to me, one always led to the other – but I agree with you, and I think the filmmakers are tapping into old fears to craft new legends for a rich, almost foreign region of America. The film did a good job of picking the ripest (if lowest hanging) fruit: inbreds, swamps, sinkholes, religion, man-gators. It has so much going on, but for the moment, let’s call it a monster movie (although I eventually want to discuss why you label it a slasher). What are your thoughts on Lockjaw? Was the creature worth the wait?
*Spoilers ahead – if you want to watch the film, stop reading. Seriously.
Chris: Absolutely not worth the wait. I said I was dying to see it for 65 minutes, but once the man-gator finally showed himself… He shouldn’t have. Would you agree that even for a B-movie the man-gator could have used some work? His teeth were falling off in scenes and I’m pretty sure the foam and latex used in the body pieces were falling off in the end. Lockjaw was a joke of a monster – not as bad as the Boogeyman from the 2005 movie, but only because that film tried to use makeup. As a quick aside, did you laugh uncontrollably during the seemingly endless sinkhole moments?
As we both agree, the South has a robust history, and it is very refreshing to see filmmakers showing those backwoods legends finally. However, the legend of Grimly/Lockjaw and how one man became a man-gator led to a lackluster flashback, with even more lack to its luster in the believability department. “Excuse me, director, you mean to tell me that staying up all night and eating every piece of flesh in a cave (including his sister/true love) turned a man into a gator, made him a God and granted him eternal life, so long as his inbred children brought him new women to impregnate and continue the family gene?” I’m calling bullshit, and was unable to suspend disbelief. I have an uncanny ability during a movie, however, to let bullshit slide past, forget about it, and enjoy the film around it. So, truthfully, even though the legend of how Grimly became Lockjaw should have ended the entertainment factor for me, it did not. What do you think, Phil? Also touch more on the – how did you put it? – “half-assed religious overtones.” I’d like to know your thoughts before I say anything.
Phil: For a film named Creature, the titular monster really underwhelmed. Lockjaw was obviously a man in a suit, and the cinematography did little to hide the seams and padding. I’m like you and can get into cheesiness, but even the design was unimaginative. The only time I was slightly disturbed was during an extreme close-up of the monster’s eyes, and that beats out a scene where it apparently gives oral to the captured, hogtied redhead. Actually, I take that back – Lockjaw left an impression in the last five minutes, when Niles (True Blood’s Mehcad Brooks) emerges from that ridiculous sinkhole with its disembodied, blood-stained jaw as a trophy. It’s bad news when a dead beast is more frightening than a live one, but the sequence showcases Niles’ bad-assery as a former Navy SEAL, which was the only backstory I found rewarding. In the characterization vein, the Grimly/Lockjaw legend was just bizarre enough to give it a pass (I also overlook ridiculousness in a film like this), but the flashback was shot in such a jerky, nonsensical way that I stared blankly in disappointment. Like seams on a creature costume, quick cuts and sloppy edits only mask amateur filming.
Now, onto those religious themes. American horror films do a peculiar thing and often conflate incest with religious zealotry – look at examples from any other country, and you’ll rarely find instances where belief in God leads to sex with your sister. Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s an intriguing, disturbing source of drama, tapping into both primal and societal fears. But in Creature, Haig’s family patriarch only gives occasional lip service to “God” and “faith,” which reeked of lazy writing despite Haig’s admirable efforts. The climactic sacrifice scene – attended by random, chanting townspeople we never knew existed – was sloppily explained, quasi-religious at best and, to top it off, simply didn’t belong. Yet again, the filmmakers were juggling too many elements and dropping most of them. Your thoughts on religion? And once you hit on that, talk about why you called the film a slasher, because I think that’s where it could’ve found redemption.
Chris: Juggling too many elements just about sums up Creature. The only continuous religious reference throughout the whole movie was the too-often repeated “we do what we’re told” line. I agree that it was extremely lazy writing and, to tell you the truth, the religious aspect didn’t even hit me until you first mentioned it. It makes sense that it is there, and I should have seen it, but they really just brushed over it. I think it could have been a more disturbing film if the filmmakers had picked one of the many subplots and focused on it for the entire film. Creature has the potential to be a pretty badass slasher film, or even a monster movie with another $10k in creature effects.
Which brings up my opinion that this movie is more slasher than monster movie. In reality, it is neither one. But it fits more in the slasher category because it deals with a psychotic man (I mean, you’d have to be to stay up all night eating a gator and your sister) who is horrifically killing everyone, including his own children. But I was more afraid of the man behind the monster, Haig, who was the real threat as the parent in an homage to Friday the 13th (1980). There were some okay deaths, but most of them were off-screen sound effects with body parts floating in water afterwards. All of the above to me screams slasher – what do you think, brother?
Phil: Creature definitely had the makings of a fun (if routine) slasher. There was all sorts of promise when you discover Haig’s son is posing as one of the “normal” folk, manipulated into bringing fresh, fertile wombs to his brood. (Although I have to admit that the twist felt clunky coming halfway through; sometimes formulas arise for a reason.) In different hands, the concept of two threats – one from a malevolent monster, the other from murderous yokels – could’ve been delightfully fresh, playing off the strengths of both to create a hybrid that succeeds for no other reason than originality. Instead, the film just feels confused and, to use this word one last time, lazy. As you mention, the kills are sub-par for a slasher, the monster is easily forgettable, and the filmmakers took the whole thing too seriously for it to be a parody of either genre. It’s a little moot to bitch about a film Andrews wasn’t capable of making, but if you tune out before the closing credits, you’ll miss his one genuinely inspired touch: A simple rendition of the folk song “(Give Me That) Old-Time Religion,” with clear-cut female vocals over haunting banjo. That’s the film I expected after the fantastic opening scene, but unfortunately, it’s not the film I saw. Anything I forgot?
Chris: I get exactly where you are coming from. I’d say that we both can see the awesomeness that Creature could have been, yet fell exaggeratingly short. It was too many, too much, and too hard in a movie of barely 90 minutes. Good call on the end credits hymn. That is exactly the movie I was hoping for also. Too bad…
The only thing we haven’t touched on is our own header for this movie, and it deserves a mention: “Can a trendy setting, cult actors and religious incest justify this retelling of a classic monster movie?” Is this a retelling of the Creature from the Black Lagoon? Does it have the same elements? Is it even enough to call it a satire? I have to say that is a gigantic NO. Just like this movie is neither slasher nor monster movie, Creature is no more a retelling of Creature from the Black Lagoon than Twilight is a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Phil, the stage is yours. What do you think?
Phil: I’m glad you looped around to Creature from the Black Lagoon. You’re right: Creature isn’t coherent enough to be satire or a strict retelling – it’s hardly even a tribute. But hang in there while I make a case for common elements and, in this instance, the downfalls of ham-fisted horror. Both films use an exotic setting to highlight the strangeness of a different, abnormal world: In Black Lagoon, a group of scientists enters the Amazon jungle, where they’re terrorized by a mysterious, man-like monster. At the time, it was an eerie metaphor for the civilized world’s blind fear of uncivilized native cultures. In Creature, a group of friends enters the Louisiana bayou, an equally dangerous and alien place where they’re hunted by a man-beast, except this time, the filmmakers don’t let the metaphor speak for itself. They crudely insert actual weird, inbred “natives” to threaten the “civilized” people. In that way, it’s a retelling, but a failed one. The genius of old-school monster movies was the way in which they used imaginative beasts to represent very real, very plausible anxieties: foreign culture, nuclear holocaust, deviant sexuality. Unfortunately, a blunt film like Creature strips away all pretense of metaphor to give audiences a confused, stereotypical and artless freak show, easy to discard and forget.
Chris: I see the elements of a classic monster movie, but as you say, they failed. Are we doing a disservice to the classics by calling this one a retelling?
Phil: I may be getting too abstract with all this rationalizing, but if nothing else, the film is an interesting example of how certain redeemable horror elements – metaphor, mood, symbolism, suspense – get lost in the hands of a bad filmmaker. We remember Creature from the Black Lagoon for those deeper qualities; no one will remember Creature because it completely misses the point. Are you comfortable labelling it a retelling for those purposes, or should we come up with something else? Maybe call it a bastardization?
Chris: I see where you are coming from by calling it a retelling, and greatly appreciate that both of us recognize how some of our analysis stretches the limits of imagination. It is just like me calling it a slasher or you calling it a monster movie: Creature has all the elements of so many different genres, yet fails (epically) to showcase one in any form of deserved recognition. Sorry to play devil’s advocate, but I was confused there for a moment. You have solved my confusion and brought me to the ultimate realization: Creature is an urban legend, monster, slasher, religious, backwoods, satirical retelling, with all and none of the above elements. What do you say, bro? Shit?
Phil: Absolute, spectacular shit. I’m going with a 1 – generous, I know – but as you point out, the film is such a surreal example of aiming high and failing on every level that it makes a decent cautionary tale. Besides, we just wrote 3,100 words on it – our readers should at least scope those opening boobs, right?
Chris: I absolutely agree. They are almost, ALMOST as good as the famous poolside sequence from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I agree with a 1. The film is watchable, but please be under the influence if you decide to see it. And do not watch it alone… You need a good friend to laugh with and help Mystery Science Theater 3000 that shit!”
Phil: 1 – Watchable with many, many beers
Chris: 1 – Ditto