Change what you think you know! Rotten Tomatoes has come up with some interesting data that defies some long-held beliefs about monster movies.
There are a couple of tropes that have become so ingrained to the production of monster movies, that they have become unwritten commandments. Don’t show your monster too soon. Don’t show the monster for too long. Keep your monster a mystery, and when you make the big reveal, don’t linger too long. Those notions have been beaten into the brains of monster movie fans for generations.
Rotten Tomatoes, with the launch of the newly released A Quiet Place has done a bit of interesting research about screen time and screen timing relative to monsters and the Tomatometer score for classic monster movies. RT contributor Mark Hofmeyer points to Jaws, Alien, and Cloverfield as to the standard bearers of successful monster movies that hold back revealing their titular creatures until key moments. And, yes, they are all top-flight monster movies where the mystery helps add to the power of the reveal.
There are some things that need to be taken into consideration, though.
- For Jaws, one of the big reasons why we didn’t see more of Bruce, was that the mechanical shark was a notoriously disastrous mechanical puppet. The production was plagued with the shark malfunctions and in the end, the shark wasn’t quite as convincing as they wanted it to be. Footage of a real shark was spliced in as a double for the clumsy mechanical shark. But, Spielberg made the best lemonade of all time out of that problem.
- For Alien, Ridley Scott slowly unveiled H.R. Giger’s splendidly designed xenomorph over the course of his movie. It was a terror unlike anything ever seen before. It was a mechanical phallus with teeth, that contained another phallus with teeth. First reactions were really hard for the viewer to comprehend what they were seeing, although everyone agreed that is was hella scary looking. The movement and uncoiling of the xenomorph hid the fact that the alien profile would show it’s a dude in a suit, and for this reason, you don’t see the creature in total until Ripley blows it out of the shuttle. Scott knew that the xenomorph was scarier when your brain was still trying to process what the monsters profile was.
- In Cloverfield, the monster was inserted completely in post-production and wasn’t even designed until after primary shooting had finished. So, in that case, the giant behemoth Cloverfield Creature had to be woven into the dense New York backgrounds. It was still a deliberate move on Abram’s part to withhold the monster in its full glory until the end… but there were other strong compelling reasons not to show the full beast for most of the movie.
That’s not to say that the premise is wrong. These movies really succeeded in their decisions to hold back on the monsters, and to limit the amount of time you see the monsters on screen, but the rationale behind the decision to limit monster screen time sometimes comes from more practical reasons than philosophical ones. It also helps that these movies were expertly scripted, and very well acted, at the direction of the modern masters. So, it’s understandable that directors in their wake believe that because these legendary filmmakers did it, it has to be the best way to do it.
After looking at the RT data, though, that line of thinking is a trap. I think the important thing about monster movies, is that we go to see them TO SEE THE MONSTERS. If you don’t show your monster soon enough, or if you don’t show enough of the creature, you will disappoint the audience. Here are some recent examples that emphasize the sensitivity of how much to feature your movie creatures:
- I recently posted a review for Splinter in which I lamented that when the monster showed up on screen, the film looked like it was being shot by an eight-year-old having an epileptic seizure. You couldn’t see the damned thing clearly! I am convinced that the director and producers did not have confidence that the look of their makeup and prosthetics could bear close HD scrutiny.
- In the new AMC show The Terror. they have yet to reveal the monster in full… though I expect it’s coming. I want to see AMC’s rendition of the spirit monster that from what I interpret from Dan Simmons is a cross between a polar bear and a plesiosaur. I really enjoy the production, but I can’t deny that I want to get a better view of the monster. (A review coming soon for The Terror, a fantastic period piece for which the horror is limited due in part to the limited screen time for the monster.)
- The 2014 Godzilla. We know what he looks like, so why play the shell game with Godzilla? Give the paying audience what they want! When the big dude shows up, it’s magical. The movie would have been better with more Godzilla, because it was clear that Gareth Edwards knew what he was doing with the monster when he was on screen. Maybe this was a budget issue… but they did show the M.U.T.O.S. for much of the film, and that wouldn’t be cheap. The sister franchise Kong Skull Island gave us lots of Kong, which was wonderful. Early, and often, lots of megagorilla. However, that film could have used a stronger through-line story.
- And, in one of the most disappointing show the monster switcheroos, the TV version of The Mist failed to deliver any monsters at all! (Or at least through the first three episodes that I watched, and gave up in frustration.) It’s like saying we’re doing a Jaws mini-series, but we’re not going to give you any sharks… just a bunch of people who are traumatized by their fear of the ocean. Yeah. Not good enough. I wanted tentacular Lovecraft beasties, and you blew it!
Hoffmeyer’s research concludes that movies that have more monster time, and earlier introduction of monster time has a positive reaction to the Tomatometer. Mike and I discussed at length on our Episode VII podcast about favorite monster movies that we appreciated The Host and its director Joon-ho Bong’s brazenness for showing his fish monster in full daylight, and to show a lot of the monster. Hoffmeyer aptly analyzes this as “You know what you’re running from Now, do not stop!” That Host monster was still weird enough that it would reveal some strange bits once you got a closer look. Things like… that monster has hands on the end of its fingers! A curious sidenote on how much confidence they had in their monster… there are lots of great photos that show the detail of the monster online! Like this one:
With the cost of quality CG coming down, I think it will be easier for filmmakers to give their star attractions more screen time. (For reference, the little short film The Fisherman has a monster that Weta or ILM would be proud of for a fraction of that budget.) Hopefully, Rotten Tomatoes’ research reaches the boardrooms of BlumHouse, Universal, Magnet, and A24. Don’t be afraid to show us the goods! The public wants monsters. Give the people what they want!
Many thanks to Mark Hoffmeyer for that eye-opening piece!
OK… time to go see how A Quiet Place pulls off this trick. I’ll be back soon with a report!