Ever since maestro Georges Méliès unleashed The Devil in a Convent in 1899, outré creatures have shambled across the silver screen. The weirdest among them range from the shag-carpet-and-rubber-tubing concoction that is The Creeping Terror (1964) to the gorgeous gal who moonlights as a ravenous Death’s Head moth in The Blood Beast Terror (1968).
When talking about strange monsters, “unlikely” does not necessarily mean “awful.” A prime example is the titular menace in director Roger Corman’s fledgling Edgar Allan Poe offering House of Usher (1960). As Corman tells it, executive producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson complained that the project didn’t have a monster which would guarantee big box office. Corman replied that the house was the movie’s monster, and the ground breaking film got green lit. Arkoff calls bullshit on Corman’s story, but Sam has been known to gild the lily on occasion, claiming to be on set for a few Mario Bava productions when he was clearly across the pond in Los Angeles. The truth about Corman’s and Arkoff’s Monster House probably falls somewhere between the two titans of ballyhoo.
One caveat before we proceed: Five critters cannot begin to scratch the surface of unlikely monsters, so feel free to add your own. As you’ll see, there’s a lot of diversity in this clutch of creatures, and though the ubiquitous zombie has an amazingly durable shelf life, the true horror maven knows that it takes all kinds to go bump in the night. …
1. THE GUY IN THE SUIT WHO REALLY IS A GUY IN A SUIT: The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965): A homicidal fish monster is killing off sock-hopping, twisting teens amid an orgy of endless surfing footage and soundtrack contributions from Frank Sinatra Jr. When it’s revealed that the crappy-looking monster suit is actually meant to be a shoddy rubber costume worn by former Maria Montez co-star Jon Hall, everything makes sense – kind of. You see, Hall’s Doctor Otto Lindsay has been slaughtering youngsters in order to lure his teenaged son away from his partying cohorts, so that the younger Lindsay will hit the books instead. The Beach Girls and the Monster is both a heartwarming exhortation to study hard, and a forerunner to every scene in Scooby Doo, where the unmasked villain sneers, “And I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those darned kids!”
2. GIANT CARNIVOROUS BUNNIES: Night of the Lepus (1972): Decades before When Animals Attack put the newborn Fox network on the map in the ’90s, 1970s Hollywood underwent an “ecology gone amok” cycle that regurgitated Slithis (1978), Frogs (1972), and The Bat People (1978). Films like these warned us not to mess-up Mother Nature with our new-fangled, poorly explained pseudo-science. Here, an effort to disrupt the reproductive cycle of pesky wabbits, results in an unstoppable hoard of fluffy bunnies, nibbling all who stand in their way. Early desert scenes attempt to mimic the eerie intensity of creature classic Them! (1954). In that film, a genuine mystery about the unseen menace imparted a bona fide sense of unease to the proceedings. In Lepus, poor Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh and DeForest Kelley do their damnedest to look unembarrassed as enlarged rabbits thunder like a cattle stampede in slo-mo, overturning Tonka Toy trucks and obliterating Lincoln Log cabins.
3. MAN-EATING SINGLE-CELLED ORGANISMS: The Flesh Eaters (1964): Low budget does not necessarily mean zero quality as this nifty little thriller demonstrates. Basically a riff on every 1940s mad scientist movie starring Lionel Atwill, The Flesh Eaters ups the ante on its models by increasing both suspense and gore while retaining the gleeful no budget, bat-shit craziness of classic PRC Studios fare. The isolated island setting and an overripe cast, including a blowsy alcoholic actress, a feckless beatnik and a malevolent marine biologist, suggests the dark doppelganger of Gilligan’s Island. As the insane Nazi quack who treats his fellow castaways as microbe chow, Martin Kosleck is a malign delight, handling props like test tubes, pistols and a solar generator with all the showboating neurotic precision of Peter Cushing in countless Hammer Frankenstein flicks. When Kosleck induces a victim to drink a glassful of microscopic monsters, the victim is eaten alive from the inside, in a truly harrowing and gut-wrenching scene.
4. THE FLOATING HEAD THAT DANGLES ENTRAILS: Mystics in Bali (1981): Genre movie mavens Mondo Macabre advertised their (now deleted) DVD release of Mystics in Bali as the Holy Grail of weird Asian cinema, and they’re right, if your idea of the Grail is a mash-up of a basic werewolf movie plotline, supernatural-yet-clumsy martial arts moves copped from the Shaw Brothers’ Black Magic films and a flying woman’s head that trails internal organs like a brightly blood spattered streamer. Cathy, an arrogant young lady from America who wears too much blue eye shadow, dares to unlock the secrets of black magic and gets more than she bargained for. An evil witch with an industrial strength cackle tricks our heroine, cursing Cathy each night to turn into a Penanggalan — a folkloric flying vampire with innards dangling below her neck. Like The Wolf Man’s Larry Talbot, Cathy feels remorse for dastardly deeds done the night before. Much like a Hammer Dracula flick, it all ends with a battle royale between two savants, white magic vs. black, but with more Kung-Fu. With demon orbs of flame that chat about the proceedings, arch overacting from the cackling witch and a truly one-of-a-kind monster, Mystics is well worth seeking out.
5. VERY HUNGRY MAMMALS ON STEROIDS: The Killer Shrews (1959): 1950s Drive-In staple and MST3K favorite The Killer Shrews is a stone-cold classic. I’m biased, of course, since I am co-producer and co-writer of the direct sequel to The Killer Shrews, Return of the Killer Shrews, due out on DVD October 22nd. (Our film picks up the story 50 years on from the original Killer Shrews with enlarged ravenous critters chewing up everything and everyone in sight. James Best, star of the 1959 low-budget regional classic, reprises his role as two-fisted boat captain Thorne Sherman. Bruce Davison, lead of the 1971 rats-all-over-Ernest-Borgnine creep-fest Willard also stars in the thriller which I call “a comedy where people get eaten.” But enough of my shameless plug.) The original movie is much better than its reputation suggests. Best is a believable, engaging protagonist, much more level headed and realistic that the usual ’50s monster movie hero. Yes, the shrews are hound dogs wrapped in fur and dressed in rubber rat tails. (Our new ones are a mix of animatronics and CGI.) Yet the attack sequences still pack a punch, and the scenes of the survivors huddled in their safe house are surprisingly harrowing.
HONORABLE STRANGE MONSTER MENTIONS — Caltiki, the Undying Monster (1959): An ancient Mexican blob may be the reason the Maya vanished. … The Monolith Monsters (1957): Fast growing pop rocks from outer space threaten to crush a small town to smithereens. … The Feathered Serpent (1946): Avenging Aztec god Quetzalcoatl is reborn as a cheap special effect. Basically the same damn movie as Devil Bat (1940) with George Zucco subbing for Bela Lugosi and a wobbly-winged lizard standing in for rubber bats. Also see Q (1982) … The Guardian (1990): Soul-sucking killer Druid tree. Director William Friedkin’s bid to match fellow former 1970’s wunderkind John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy (1979) in the ridiculous monster sweepstakes. … Phase IV (1974): Ordinary desert ants develop hive intelligence with dire consequences for a group of scientists.