9. Phase IV
Artist Saul Bass’ striking, graphic style made a huge impact on Hollywood. You can see his work on iconic movie posters (Vertigo, The Shining), as well as in some of cinema’s most memorable title sequences (just one example: the disjointed words in the opening credits of Psycho, which instantly set the film’s unsettling tone). Though he directed several shorts (including Oscar-winning short doc Why Man Creates), Bass made just one feature, and it’s an odd one: 1974’s Phase IV.
After apparently receiving a message from space, a desert ant colony morphs into a hive mind capable of sudden violence, though their main focus is building towers, crop circles, and other structures. A pair of curious scientists set up a lab to study and confront the ants, which seem to be prepping for something massive. But these aren’t the rampaging, irradiated giants of Them!; instead, the ants are shown to be methodical and intelligent, a portrayal greatly helped by lots of extreme close-up shots captured by wildlife photographer Ken Middleham. Overall, Phase IV is unusually beautiful and thoughtful for a “critters gone wild” movie, obviously thanks to Bass’ visual mastery, as well as the story’s embrace of the cosmic unknown.
8. The Happening
One day, out of nowhere, mass suicides begin happening—ending the lives of people who were not known to be depressed or otherwise at risk. Yep, before Bird Box, there was M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 revenge thriller, in which pissed-off plants start wafting mind-controlling neurotoxins around to teach the irresponsible, wasteful human population some very hard lessons.
The basic story bears more than a passing resemblance to a 1950s sci-fi drive-in flick, the tone (despite all those deaths) is that just seems ever-so-slightly out of place. It’s not a good movie by any means (though it will surely have a long life as a midnight movie)—but it certainly imbues plants with a level of frighteningly random power that few sci-fi stories have before or since.
7. The Food of the Gods
Despite what the above trailer will have you believe, H.G. Wells’ fingerprints are only very faintly detectable on B-movie maestro Bert I. Gordon’s delightfully trashy The Food of the Gods. The 1976 release has an ensemble cast that somehow includes both Hollywood legend Ida Lupino and cult actor Marjoe Gortner (Google him), and it takes place on an isolated island where a mysterious substance (see: the title) has started oozing from the ground, making animals and insects that consume it alarmingly enormous. (The Wells story offered a science-gone-wild explanation for the substance; the movie skips over that and just hustles to the part about giant animals rising up against human oppressors.)
Most of the joy of watching The Food of the Gods comes from seeing the “special effects”—really, old-school trick photography that makes it look like regular-sized actors are facing off with giant-arse chickens, wasps, and (in the movie’s most unintentionally hilarious sequence) rats. But amid all the silliness, it does kind of make you consider what could happen if Earth’s most humble creatures suddenly gained a huge size advantage on us.
6. Godzilla vs. Hedorah
In 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (also known by its evocative alternate title, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster), the King of the Monsters pivots to being a champion for humankind, a handy circumstance indeed when the combination of a wayward alien and Earth’s nastiest pollution generates a hideous, shape-shifting creature that’s hellbent on total annihilation. A marine biologist and his young son (who happens to be a Godzilla fanboy), along with the rest of Japan, are rightfully alarmed by a sudden outbreak of poisonous sea creatures—especially when they form a massive organism the kid dubs “Hedorah” (from “hedoro,” the word for “sludge” in Japanese), which takes to the air and starts vaporizing people (and sliming at least one furious kitten) with its toxic emissions.
The scientist is able to figure out a way to weaken the creature, but ultimately only Godzilla is able to take it down. Godzilla vs. Hedorah delivers a potent warning about pollution (the Smog Monster hungrily feeds on factory smokestacks), but it’s also a movie that sees the Big G use his atomic breath to shoot through the air like a jetpack, and contains a hilariously random “psychedelic acid freak-out in the dance club” scene. A win-win, in other words.
John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Black Sunday) directed this 1979 thriller about a New York City doctor (Robert Foxworth; Rocky’s Talia Shire co-stars as his wife) who goes on assignment for the EPA and heads to a remote forest to investigate a land dispute. Tensions are running sky-high between a sleazy logging company that’s way more focused on profits than anything else and the local Native American community. All signs point to the logging company’s paper mill contaminating the river with chemicals, causing grievous harm to wildlife.
But things take a turn for the nightmarish when a mutant bear suddenly appears, at once embodying a tribal legend about a vengeful forest spirit while also gnawing on any human that gets in its way. Prophecy has some beautiful scenery, thanks to its British Columbia locations, and it tries to be a cautionary tale that plays everything as straight as possible…while also being a creature feature about a comedically superstrong mutant bear (which suspiciously resembles a person in a hairless bear costume that’s been hosed down with stage blood), a literal force of nature so haphazardly destructive it rips through lumberjacks, children, and the Native activists who are actually trying to protect its turf.
4. The Bay
With producers like Orem Peli (Paranormal Activity) and Blumhouse’s Jason Blum, and Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (Rain Man) at the helm, The Bay has an unusually robust pedigree for a found-footage horror film. Even if you hate that genre in general, The Bay is actually rather well-executed, and it boasts some gloriously gross special effects. It’s framed as an exposé of an event that’s been completely covered up by the government and uses different video sources and points of view to tell its tale, though a TV reporter who was a surviving eyewitness (played by Kether Donohue) provides a narrative focal point.
Three years prior, on what should’ve been a merry Fourth of July, residents of a Maryland beach town are suddenly felled by a strange plague. Except what’s causing giant, bloody blisters isn’t some dreadful new disease—it’s an invasive parasite known as the “tongue-eating louse,” freshly super-sized thanks to an abundance of toxic pollution in the water. Making matters worse, there’s every indication that the danger was known to a select few (including the town mayor) who chose not to warn anybody. That’s as monstrous as the eventual burying of the story, but the most memorable parts of The Bay are 100 per cent anytime we see someone’s boil pulsate and give way to a creepy-crawly in search of its next juicy human host.
3. Long Weekend
This 1978 thriller (it was remade in 2008, but stick with the original for maximum lo-fi unease) takes place in Australia and offers convincing evidence to back up the idea that the country’s wildlife has its own particular flavour of brutality. In the case of Long Weekend, however, you can hardly blame nature for turning against its human invaders. Though they’re barely on speaking terms, Peter and Marcia pack up for a weekend getaway on an isolated beach, disregarding a “Keep Out” sign and disrespecting all manner of native flora and fauna from the instant they arrive. Their casual trashing of nature ranges from things like tossing cigarette butts into the brush and driving their truck on the pristine sand, to actually killing animals and worse (in one heart-wrenching scene, Marcia smashes an eagle egg as the mother bird circles mournfully overhead).
Long Weekend builds its menace slowly but steadily; as the couple’s relationship gets more and more strained, mostly due to the emotional baggage they’ve brought with them, the wilderness grows more and more threatening. Long Weekend is unique on this list because these animals haven’t been mutated or genetically altered in any way—they’re just asserting themselves, all at once, on a couple of arsehole outsiders who absolutely have it coming.
I’m singling out 1980’s Alligator here, but I picked it as a representative of several other “oops, we contaminated the animals” movies, which don’t vary too much in plot but are all over the map in terms of furious creatures. A young Robert Forster stars as a Chicago cop investigating reports of a giant alligator lurking in the sewers. In true urban legend fashion, the gator’s there because some jerk flushed his kid’s exotic new pet down the toilet a few years prior. In true sci-fi horror fashion, the critter has become gi-normous because of a steady diet of pets, wayward humans, and, oh yeah, lab rats that were used to test a sketchy agricultural growth hormone.
As an added bonus, once the gator makes its inevitable jailbreak from the sewer, it rampages through a fancy wedding party attended by the movie’s cast of villainous snobs, flinging tablecloths around and snacking on various guests—including the mayor of Chicago! Other recommended movies in a similar vein—which is to say, featuring animals and insects that become monsters as a direct result of humans mucking around in science labs—include rabbit terror epic Night of the Lepus, New Zealand black comedy Black Sheep, Joe Dante’s Piranha, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, and Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic.
1. The Last Winter
Underrated horror director Larry Fessenden’s best film to date is this chilling thriller about an environmentalist (James LeGros) who butts heads with the macho leader of an oil company (Ron Perlman) when he suggests that climate change may be compromising a lucrative plan to drill on a protected part of the Arctic. It gets worse when workers begin succumbing to poisonous natural gas emissions, but what at first seems like an explainable series of disasters gets spooky as hell when sinister apparitions—Earth’s ghosts, it seems, summoned to defend an angry, weary planet—begin meting out their own brand of supernatural frontier justice.
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