Dinosaurs: you love ‘em, we love ‘em, everybody loves ‘em, particularly as guest monsters in our favorite Sci-Fi and horror films. But what about the science behind them, and their reptile-adjacent relatives?
With things like Tyrannosaurus marching around, it’s easy to forget about trilobites, mammoths, ammonites, and all manner of other prehistoric beasties that cinematic paleo-scientists have to deal with. After all… Megalodon supposedly became extinct two million years ago. Supposedly.
We’re excited to bring you a special guest post from contributing writer of Prehistoric Times, Phil Hore, with his personal top ten movies about paleo-science.
10. LAKE PLACID (1999)
Director: David E. Kelley
Find it: on Blu-ray at Shout! Factory
In a large lake in Maine, a marine fish and game officer is killed by something living under its dark waters, and when the body is investigated, an enormous shed tooth is found — one big enough to be a dinosaurs’. The American Museum of Natural History paleontology department sends a representative out to join a fish and game investigation to find out the killer’s identity. Hijinx ensue, along with many heads flung about as the team encounters an enormous croc.
The LAKE PLACID series is a return to the idea of nature run amok, and it joined a growing list of films with giant creatures attacking modern civilization. Recently our movie screens have been filled with ancient reptile-based traditional monsters, such as the giant kaiju in PACIFIC RIM, larger dinosaurs, and even a prehistoric shark in THE MEG.
9. JURASSIC PARK (1993) / THE LOST WORLD (1997) / CARNOSAUR (1993)
Director: Steven Spielberg / Adam Simon
Find it: on Blu-ray at Universal Pictures Home Entertainment / New Horizons
By far the most successful paleo-fiction films are from the Jurassic Park franchise, and 1997s THE LOST WORLD could be firmly placed in the classic Hollywood horror genre. The end of the film is even a tip-of-the-hat to many of these older films, with a monster cut loose in the streets of a big city. The other thing the sequel does is up the body count and scares. A smorgasbord of people get chomped and stomped, and there are some genuinely spooky scenes — such as the raptors sprinting through the long grass, or the T. Rex sniffing a bloody shirt inside a tent.
This franchise has inspired numerous imitators, though 1993’s CARNOSAUR cannot be considered one of them. It’s based on the book by John Brosnan, published well before Crichton’s JURASSIC PARK novel. Plus, it cannot be considered a clone because… you know, all the Jurassic Park dinosaurs are clones (ha). CARNOSAUR is about a mad scientist who decides to use genetics and chicken DNA to bring dinosaurs back to life specifically so that they will destroy the world.
8. THE THAW (2009)
Director: Mark A. Lewis
Find it: on Blu-ray at Lionsgate
THE THING, in all of its incarnations, certainly has its own emulators as well, with similar storylines appearing in THE X-FILES and, most recently, in THE THAW. This 2009 movie also taps into another fear of the moment: climate change, and deals with dead frozen mammoths thawing out of the polar ice and releasing ancient pathogens into the world. Though unloved by just about everyone as a horror film, from a paleontology perspective, it’s worth a watch for its scientific themes.
7. THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) / THE THING (1982) / THE THING (2011)
Director: Howard Hawks / John Carpenter / Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Find it: on Blu-ray at Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Prehistoric creatures fell out of favor for a lot of the years after earlier black and white films. Horror movies turned away from monsters to psychological/slasher thrillers. But movie monsters are often created to help reflect society at the time, and fear created by the AIDS epidemic of the early 80s cannot be downplayed. John Carpenter’s THE THING took that fear and ran with it in his remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks masterpiece THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Carpenter took the world on a paranoia-filled horror ride — one where your own blood could be turned against you.
Released onto a viewing public that saw aliens as misunderstood, loveable scamps thanks to films like E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, it’s fair to say that despite being incredibly well-made, 1982’s THE THING initially could not find an audience. “Is this the most hated movie of all time?” is how one journal titled its review, with almost every movie critic at the time agreeing. Though despised by critics then, today it’s considered one of the best horror movies ever filmed.
In 2011, a prequel to Carpenter’s film was released, where once again a paleontologist is called in to investigate something ancient trapped in polar ice. History repeated itself as once more this version initially failed to find its audience, though as time passes, a growing fan base seems to be appreciating what the film attempted to achieve.
There is a heavy science basis in all three films — with many of the characters having a scientific background — leading to an overall theme of evolution. The creature in these films is just looking to survive, and be it a human in a monster suit, an enormous, intricately-made puppet, or a CGI creature, this is the premise running through all of these stories. The way the alien evolves, adapts, and overcomes to get off Antarctica and reach the rest of the world leads to the self-realization with those fighting the creature that, though an individual may not survive, the species must. The Thing, each part of it, right down to its individual cells, is out to survive in anyway it can.
6. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)
Director: Jack Arnold
Find it: on Blu-ray at Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal, famous for its classic horror films like DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, also made an entry into the paleo-fiction genre with what is likely the smartest, best-filmed horror of the 50s. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON begins with a paleontologist uncovering a fossilized webbed hand in limestone, dating back to the Devonian Age. This leads to a new expedition into the Amazon to try and unearth the rest of the fossil, but what they find is DEATH (of course)…
Not only does the movie contain one of the now-classic Universal Monsters, it’s full of paleo-jargon, with characters discussing extinction, geology, and how life evolved. Designed to be seen in 3D, the film is remembered for its fantastic underwater scenes, with the creature — a piscine amphibious humanoid evolved from a Devonian species — swimming alongside or directly underneath expedition members.
5. QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967)
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Find it: on Blu-ray available from StudioCanal
A British Hammer movie known as FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH in the US, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (and its ‘hero’, Professor Quatermass) can be viewed as coming from the same mold as DOCTOR WHO or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger. The character has appeared in movies, TV shows, books, and comics, and is a scientific hero who steps into strange incidences and tries to explain and solve them.
QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is the flagship story of the entire group, as it has been remade in most formats, and all are pretty good. The story begins with a tunnel being dug under a place called Hobbs End, with the workers uncovering a number of Neanderthal skulls. This brings in a team of paleontologists, who begin collecting the skulls only to discover a mysterious metal object buried with them. They return to their institute to preserve and do tests on the fossils.
Thought to be the remains of a German rocket from the war, tests on the metal prove that it is of alien origin, and once the army and scientists break in, they discover the dead bodies of the alien crew. Exposed to the air, these insectoid creatures immediately start to rot. But just because their bodies are dead does not end the danger they present. After theorizing the aliens had encouraged human evolution, mysterious deaths begin to mount up around the ship, and Quatermass deduces the ship itself is alive and taking over people’s minds with telekinesis.
If you like Doctor Who (and even if you don’t), the Quatermass series is pretty great, and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is a creepy, horror-filled suspense story well worth a watch.
4. THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957)
Director: Nathan H. Juran
Find it: on DVD at the Universal Vault
In the 1950s and 60s, atomic creatures became all the rage, with animals either spawned out of the energy of a fission bomb or being released from their icy prehistoric prisons. Three years after Godzilla stomped Tokyo, when a strange object is found in its empty ice cocoon and shown to a paleontologist, he recognizes it as a piece of leg from an enormous extinct praying mantis. The world thus falls under the terrifying grip of THE DEADLY MANTIS — a 200-foot prehistoric insect that, of course, immediately heads south towards a major city.
3. GODZILLA (Gojira) (1954)
Director: Ishiro Honda
Find it: on Blu-ray at various distributors, including a Criterion Collection
The origins of Godzilla have changed many times, and though not considered to be a dinosaur in some films, he was always either a prehistoric creature (as when a trilobite is discovered in his footprint) or something forged in atomic fire. When the original Godzilla was being designed by the movie’s art director, Akira Watanabe, he based it on the old-style T. Rex, Iguanodon, and Stegosaurus that he saw in LIFE magazine at the time, as well as an alligator (all of which you can clearly see in its form).
No one could have guessed the impact Godzilla would have on the world, with dozens of movies, followed by cartoons, comics, toys and t-shirts filling the childhood of millions of fans for over half a century. And with the recent success of 2014’s GODZILLA and a sequel on the horizon, this movie monster shows no signs of going extinct anytime soon.
2. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) / THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959)
Director: Eugène Lourié
Find it: on Blu-ray at Warner Home Video
Eugene Lourie and Ray Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS created a subgenre all of its own — the “science vs the monster of the week” that would dominate so many horror films of the 50s and 60s. Based on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn”, the ‘beast’ is a Rhedosaurus, a 200-foot stop-motion dinosaur released from its icy hibernation in the Arctic by an atomic bomb explosion. One survivor of its initial appearance teams up with a paleontologist, who speculates that the monster is returning to the Hudson Bay area, as this is the exact spot that Rhedosaurus fossils have been unearthed.
Lourié followed this hit with THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959), which was totally different from his earlier film: an aquatic monster becomes saturated with nuclear waste, and later travels south to take out its angst on London. It is a paleontologist who recognizes that the behemoth is actually a dinosaur, which he names Paleosaurus.
These films can be seen as a reflection of their paranoia-tainted times. In a world where the US and Russia were seemingly threatening all of humanity with nuclear annihilation, is it any wonder that people sought refuge from the horror of their daily lives by watching the destruction of atomic monsters on the silver screen?
1. KING KONG
Director: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Find it: on Blu-ray at Warner Home Video
1933’s KING KONG has been ranked by Rotten Tomatoes as the greatest horror film of all time, and who could argue with that? The story was inspired by the popular jungle films of the day like TARZAN, as well as the movie many who created Kong’s amazing effects had worked on previously: THE LOST WORLD.
KONG was something new, however. In a film full of dastardly prehistoric monsters, its main protagonist is a sympathetic creature that the audience truly connects with. Created by Willis O’Brien, the film’s special effects were groundbreaking, taking the art of stop-motion to a whole new level and setting such a high watermark that it would take decades before they were surpassed.
KONG’s dinosaurs were inspired by the world-famous paintings by Charles R. Knight at the American Museum of Natural History. Sadly, when the movie was released, the strict rules about movie violence meant many of these scenes were cut by the heavy-handed censors of the day.
Kong’s great success spawned sequels, comics, remakes, and numerous imitators, but none have ever surpassed the magic of the original.
The current issue of Prehistoric Times celebrates the 100th anniversary of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, and features a shoutout to Famous Monsters’ original run. Check it out at your local newsstand or online!