Monstrously Cool

Poster for The Lost World, directed by Irwin Allen, 1960.

Like I said last time, you need a really cool monster, but being a cool monster is about more than appearance. Of course, the monster has to look compelling, but it’s also about presentation. Viewing angles, physical setting, how the creature moves, and what it does all impact our perception of visual quality. Are we interested by what we see? Are we appropriately afraid or impressed in accordance with the needs and purpose of the story? In this installment and the next, I’d like to weigh in with my opinions on some movie monsters which have captivated me from childhood to the present. They helped to shape my opinions of what a monster should be.

Film-still from The Lost World, directed by Irwin Allen, 1960.

The first monster movie to grab my attention was Irwin Allen’s 1960 adaptation of The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a fun read in itself, by the way). The setting of an isolated, mysterious plateau in South America really set the tone for the story. The “dinosaurs” which thrilled me at the tender age of six were actually small alligators and monitor lizards retro-fitted with horns, hoods, and dorsal fins. Still, the fight where both of the dinosaurs end up going over a high cliff was dramatic and a bit different, and the special effects weren’t bad for that time period. Another interesting touch was the “fire god,” a so-called dinosaur which erupted from a pool of water in a subterranean cave near the end of the film. This was the image from that film which stayed in my memory the most. The dorsal fin, the horns, and the verticality of the fire good were truly impressive to my young mind.

These are good examples of how presentation magnifies the impact of somewhat limited special effects. While this is important, it can only take you so far. Such stories still require an essential element. What really puts a monster over the top, then, is good design. More on that next time…