Between penning acclaimed plays (the Stephen King opus, King of Bangor) and contributing features to Fangoria magazine, Melbourne-based author Lee Gambin (pictured, below, with Molly) writes books on the subject that most inspires him - the horror film. The 33 year-old sat with SCREEN-SPACE at a bustling Melbourne eatery to talk about his soon-to-be-published work, Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, an in-depth analysis of the sub-genre known as eco-horror.
Why this book, why now?
It is a favourite sub-genre of mine, one of many, and it is very much under-discussed. It sometimes manages to creep into some film theory books but no one has really tackled it in depth. I grew up loving these sorts of films, watching them all the time. Most of them did come out of the 1970s, to cash in on the environmental movement, which was really taking shape, on the back of the hippy culture. The anti-war anger was subsiding and the new cause was the climate. By the time the 80s came about, Greenpeace and Wilderness Society and PETA were huge and the message was that we better look after the environment or it will turn on us.
By what characteristics did eco-horror define itself?
These films brought us the ‘new monster’; rather than having some supernatural creature, it was just rats or dogs or rabbits or some such thing. Mother Nature turning on mankind. And going through it, I realised it actually has spawned a whole lot of subgenres within itself, such as the mutated monster films, or the ‘human help’ films, like Willard or Jennifer, where outcast people enlist the help of animals to do their bidding. It is not as massively popular as the slasher genre or demonic-themed films, but eco-horror was still huge, particularly through the 70s and 80s. And it still survives today, in those films by Asylum, things like Dino-croc.
What were the films that have emerged as the most influential in the eco-horror genre?
The two that really stand out as pivotal moments in the field, that provided credibility for the genre, are The Birds and Jaws. But for me, I loved all the films that were made as Jaws rip-offs. Things like Tentacles, which was awful but wonderful, or Orca, which was a genuinely beautiful film. Films like Piranha and Night of the Lepus. I am a huge fan of all the Bert I. Gordon movies, like Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants. All the killer insect movies, like The Swarm. And many of these films are so seldom seen.
And I discovered that many films are not specifically credited as eco-horror works but...
...right! Films like The Corpse Grinders, which was about these cat food entrepreneurs who aren’t getting any business so they start to grind corpses into their cat food and the cats that are eating it start to develop a taste for humans.
How are the sub-genres inherent to eco-horror represented in the book (pictured, left)?
The book discusses these in the different chapters, which was hard to (categorize) because there are heaps of different, say, killer dog films, so I had to have a whole chapter about dogs, or insects. There are heaps of those giant creature, ‘atomic age’ films, like Tarantula, and lots of those cold war fear and anxiety films, like It Came From Beneath The Sea. Then we have chapters on such things as stock characters in eco-horror. Just like slasher films have ‘the final girl’ and ‘the masked killer’, eco-horror has the ‘wise native character’ who already knows about the monster or the ‘specialist’ who sympathises with the animal or, and this is very different from other horror genres, the ‘male protagonist’.
As well-versed as you are on the subject, were there aspects of the genre that you discovered for the first time in your research?
Oh, absolutely! Most of it was to do with the production side of the films. For example, I had no idea that Joan McCall, who was in Grizzly, actually wrote a screenplay for a sequel that never got made. And that it would have had George Clooney and Laura Dern in the cast. There were some amazing things, like that Sylveser Stallone was supposed to Squirm. So many amazing elements that added to the fun of writing it. The book is a combination of analytical and info but very much written in my voice, so it’s not an academic piece but it also kind of is (laughs). And it is all about animals. I have been asked if it covers stuff like Day of the Triffids, but no. I could have done that but then you get into a territory that would have to include natural disaster movies and I’m not going to sit and write about stuff like Twister. I don’t really care about them. I mean I do love a lot of those films, but...y’know.
Are there Australian eco-horror films?
The eco-horror message is perfectly condensed in The Long Weekend (pictured, right), one of the greatest Aussie films.
And were eco-horror films always the by-product of the B-movie producers?
Well, there was Jaws and The Swarm and Cujo, films that were backed by the major studios. Every now and then, the majors would surprise with an eco-horror film like Warner Bros did with The Pack (pictured, top). But most of them were B-pictures from studios like American International Pictures, starting with Frogs (video, below). Which I think has helped to grow the genre’s cult status.
I guess, finally, are eco-horror films a thing of the past? Are the fears that drive them no longer the fears of the larger society?
Oh God, no! There is a Korean film called Pig Hunt. Major studio films like Liam Neeson’s one, The Grey, which is all about wolves. All those wonderful Asylum films, like Sharktopus and what not. There will always be those surprise ones, like The Grey, that sell themselves as ‘action-thrillers’ but which are really just the latest variation on the great B-movie eco-horror traditions.
Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film is available via mail order through Midnight Marquee Press and at selected specialist book stores.