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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Don't Mess With Mother Nature, Part 1 (originally published 10/99)

One of humanity's most cherished beliefs is the notion that we have tamed nature. Despite the occasional rude reminder from a passing hurricane or tornado, we are generally able to sustain this comforting sense of dominion over the natural world. When we close and latch our doors, for example, we expect to be able to keep bugs and vermin out of our living quarters. Most of the time (with the help of a vast pest control industry) we do manage, after a fashion, to keep the natural world at bay in this way and maintain our illusion of inviolate sovereignty.

Even so, we understand at some level that the illusion is fragile. We can see, after all, that we are outnumbered. If all the insects, or all the rats, or all the birds were to turn on us at once in a coordinated assault, we would simply be overrun by force of numbers. Our sense of security therefore depends on the assumption that such lower forms of life are incapable of concerted action on a mass scale.

For the producers of scary movies, this uneasy truce with the natural world provides a golden opportunity. They know that any film that suggests the possibility of organized aggression by the animal kingdom against humanity is likely to have a significant psychological impact. That's the strategy behind the currently playing "Bats," in which hordes of harmless bats are converted (by a meddlesome scientist, naturally) into killers. Naturally, a narrative motherlode of angst this rich has been tapped by filmmakers many times before. Here are some earlier variations on the "nature in revolt" theme to look for on home video.

"Them!" (1954). In the Fifties, it was usually atomic radiation that aroused the fury of nature, mostly by mutating tiny creatures into gigantic monsters. In this case, it is the ant population near a New Mexico nuclear test site that goes berserk. Enlarged to dinosaur-like proportions, they cross the desert and nest in the Los Angeles sewer system. With an excellent cast, including James Whitmore and Edmund Gwenn, and an intelligent script, this is the best of the giant bug movies.

"The Birds" (1963). Fright master Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's story about the revolt of the birds has lost none of its impact over the years. In part this is because no pat explanation for the bird attacks is offered. It's not atomic radiation and it's not some crazy scientist's experiment gone awry. Presumably the birds have just had it up to here with being caged, shot for sport, and eaten. Despite the many comparable films that have been made since, this Hitchcock masterpiece remains the gold standard.

"Frogs" (1972). During the Seventies, when nature revolted it was usually in retaliation for humanity's callous abuse of the ecosystem. Here we have the squishy, slimy, and altogether nasty story of the richly justified fate that befalls a wealthy industrialist, played by Ray Milland, whose chemical company has polluted the Florida wetlands with impunity for years. Having eluded man's laws for far too long, he eventually falls prey to the law of the jungle as thousands of lizards, snakes, turtles, and other swamp denizens invade his home, telepathically led by a race of intelligent frogs.

"Kingdom of the Spiders" (1977). Here's another cautionary eco-tale, this one about the misuse of pesticides in Arizona. When indiscriminate pesticide use curtails the food supply of the desert tarantulas, they just mosey into town by the thousands to register their complaint in person. William Shatner plays the local veterinarian who has to try to cope with the problem. If you liked "Arachnophobia" (1990), but found it just a bit too tongue-in-cheek, here's a spider movie that takes itself a little more seriously.

Like "Bats," each of these films portrays the effects of arousing the wrath of entire species, thereby provoking the animal kingdom's equivalent of gang violence. In other films, however, it isn't a question of humanity inciting a general wildlife riot. Sometimes one rogue animal with a serious grudge against his human cousins can be intimidating enough to build a fright film around. Those are the films we'll consider next week.

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