Nature Strikes Back in Eco-horror Films
Is there anything scarier in horror movies than the truth factor?
It doesn’t matter how far-fetched the plot or how loosely it may be based in reality, just a touch of “this did happen” or “this could happen” sets me on edge. (I haven’t watched The Blob the same way since my young niece shared that a teen blogger said it was based on a true story.)
Some films are set up to put the truth factor in your mind from the start. Take Day of the Animals (1974) a film with a somber opening crawl that detailed the real work of doctors F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of California who startled the scientific community in 1974 with their findings on how chlorofluorocarbons – found in everyday objects like hairspray and spray deodorants – were contributing to the depletion of the ozone layer. (They later co-shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry.)
The crawl continued: “dangerous amounts of ultraviolet rays are reaching the surface of our planet and adversely affecting all living things. This motion picture dramatizes what could happen in the near future if we continue to do nothing.”
That’s one way to get the viewer’s attention – I was unsettled before the first character was on screen.
Day of the Animals was one of the eco-horror films of the 1970s that came from growing ecological and environmental concerns. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 was held to acknowledge these worries about pollution, pesticides and other contaminants and how it’s up to humans to protect the world’s natural resources.
If we didn’t? Well, these films were cautionary tales on what could happen.
Day of the Animals (1974) depicted the disastrous effects of holes in the ozone layer. Food of the Gods (1976) serves a version of what happens when chemicals we’re putting into the ground rise again. In Prophecy (1979), environmental waste from a paper mill causes a bear to mutate into a giant killer.
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The first of these eco-horror films was Frogs (1972), which addressed the effects of pollution.
But don’t be fooled by the title. There are more than frogs in this cult classic. Snakes, spiders, alligators, leeches, insects, amphibians and whatever else might be found around a Florida island take revenge against humans for destroying the planet. The frogs mostly sit – or hop – around, eerily watching the humans and seemingly instructing the other creatures to attack. As in Day of the Animals, this animal voyeurism is effectively creepy.
The wealthy Crockett family is spending their annual two-week birthday celebration on their private Florida island. Patriarch Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) is a cranky, wheelchair-bound man who doesn’t show much regard for anything or anyone other than himself. The already unhappy group is even more miserable because of the incessant croaking of the frogs that continues around the clock.
They should have listened closer. The frogs aren’t happy about the family’s use of poisons at their plantation and paper mill, plus their general indifference to nature. Uncle Stuart suggests pouring oil in the water to choke off the frogs, no matter what else it kills. Mr. Crockett’s solution is to dispatch the gardener to spray pesticide around the island to quiet both the frogs and his family.
Enter freelance photographer Pickett Smith (played by Sam Elliott in a rare clean-shaven role) who is on assignment for an ecology magazine’s pollution spread. He’s seen the water pollution around the island before his canoe is upended by two family members in a motorboat. Mr. Crockett isn’t happy about the unwelcome visitor until he realizes that Pickett’s knowledge of ecology could come in handy with the family’s “frog problem.”
Again, pay attention people. You’ve got more than a frog problem as that giant snake wrapped around the dining room chandelier proves.
“Frogs attacking windows, snakes on chandeliers. Those aren’t exactly normal things Mr. Crockett,” Pickett says in the understatement of the film.
But Crockett counters with his belief that “man is master of the world.”
As bodies pile up, the stubborn Crockett refuses to see the deaths as anything other than accidents. The soft-spoken Pickett knows better. “You’ve overdone it with the pesticides and poisons here. I’m afraid to think of what’s happened,” Pickett says in a sentence that sums up the film.
Most of the attacking animals in Frogs are small, but what they lack in size they make up for in quantity. The image of a person covered in spiders and entombed in their webs makes its point.
Frogs wants us to remember that all the contaminates we put into the Earth and air will find their way back to us.
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There aren’t any frogs in Day of the Animals, but there’s a deadly array of birds, bears, snakes, buzzards, mountain lions, rats and dogs for starters. They’re among the animals that have turned dangerously aggressive at high altitudes around a Northern California mountainside town (and the world), a phenomenon blamed on problems with the ozone layer.
There’s more, too. Sweaty locals are complaining about the heat while news reports advise against going outside because of ozone depletion.
That won’t stop tour guide Steve Buckner (Christopher George) who ignores a ranger discouraging him from taking city folk up the mountains for a two-week hike. The area is so remote they’re dropped off by helicopter (never a good thing in a horror movie). The group includes a boy and his mean mother (classic film actress Ruth Roman), a dying pro football player, an anthropology professor (Richard Jaeckel), a squabbling husband and wife, a desperately-in-love young couple, a TV reporter (Lynda Day George, real-life wife of Christophe George), a Native American guide named Santee (Michael Ansara) and an ad exec (Leslie Nielsen).
In the mountains, the beauty of nature can’t hide that something isn’t right. Santee feels it. “There’s something strange in the woods and I don’t know what it is.” Things go bad fast. Birds get aggressive, a wolf attacks the sleeping group the first night. Just like in Frogs, there’s resistance to the idea that those are anything other than isolated incidents. That changes the next day at the food drop where it’s been destroyed by animals who have eaten everything. Night 2 brings an even larger attack.
It’s not much better in the town below which is being evacuated by the Army with more blame put on ozone depletion. (This film has a very focused view of the problem.)
By now, we’re well into that familiar movie guessing game of “who will survive” (and, let’s admit it, “who we want to survive”). Tempers flare, people fight people.
Most shocking is the usually funny Leslie Nielsen’s performance as a racist and violent man who becomes as much a danger to the group as the animals. It’s difficult to listen to him rant and threaten others in the last third of the film. It culminates in a notably strange scene of a shirtless Nielsen provoking a hand-to-hand battle with a grizzly.
In perhaps the film’s boldest statement, Nielsen’s growing rage mirrors that of the animals and presents the idea that the “ozone thing,” as it’s called, has the same dangerous effect on humans as it does on animals.
Day of the Animals is a surprisingly tense film. I never relaxed and jumped several times even on my second viewing (and I’m not a film jumper). The horror builds on the repeated images and sounds of animals in their natural habitat. As in Frogs, the animals are voyeurs who stalk their victims. Birds circle overhead; a mountain lion crouches on a rock like he’s ready to pounce; a bear is always walking nearby just out of sight. It’s unnerving.
Yet all those disturbing images, the multiple animal attacks and Leslie Nielsen thinking he’s more powerful than a grizzly aren’t as scary as the one feature that sets eco-horror apart from other films: it could happen.
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Here are three other films that could fall under the eco-horror banner.
Food of the Gods (1976), a very loose adaptation of H.G. Wells novel. Contaminants that rise from the ground are mistaken for food and given to animals who grow large and deadly. This comes from American International Pictures and is directed by Bert I. Gordon.
The Swarm (1978) is more of a disaster film than eco-horror since the all-star cast faces an invasion of deadly African killer bees. But the much-maligned Irwin Allen movie is worth mentioning if only for the cast of Michael Caine, Olivia De Havilland, Katharine Ross, Patty Duke, Bradford Dillman and Fred MacMurray.
Long Weekend (1978) is a well-regarded Australian film in which a miserable couple goes away for a few days and their reckless disregard for nature – tossing cigarette ashes into the brush, killing animals – causes nature to fight back.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.