Thursday, January 08, 2009

Movies: "According to science, there's no telling who could be eaten!"

I'm not a big one for handing out extra credit on the basis of nostalgia baiting. When I was younger, I was incredibly fond of Saturday afternoon creature feature flicks – mostly Ike Era morality tales about how atomic power will embiggen various segments of the animal kingdom until they pose an existential threat to the more traditionally portioned of us. I still hold a soft spot for these flicks, especially Tarantula, a movie that features, in case you couldn't guess, an outsized version of the titular arachnid causing distress to a desert community until the U.S. Air Force ruins its fun with extreme prejudice.

While I recognize the special power these films exerted over me in my youth, I don't understand the impulse to evaluate current films by the benchmark they set. For some reason, this sort of willful critical retardation is completely acceptable in some mediums and genres and obviously wrong-headed in others. The critical judgments of somebody who maintained that no good novel was written after Annie on My Mind would be justly dismissed off-hand. However, it isn't uncommon to treat the claim that no great horror films were made after the 1980s with a modicum of critical politeness.

This isn't to say that there aren't classic horror films. But, to me, a classic is a film that continues to endure despite, not because, of its connection to the era of its creation. Its style and content continue to be relevant even as the culture changes around them. It somehow always approaches the viewer as a current revelation, not as an emissary from the past.

That said, the appeal of nostalgia is incredibly strong in horror. The impulse to create things that return to the templates and tropes of past flicks in the hopes of cashing in on fond memories drives a considerable portion of the horror genre. And, despite their protestations, fans seem happy to pony up the cheddar for these re-heated leftovers. (Sequels and remakes made impressive showings on both the Vault 50 and Vault Modern 25 lists.) People often site that the draw of horror stems from the primal nature of fear. Perhaps that's true. But there's an even more basic emotion, the longing for the safety and comfort of the familiar, that would seem to exert an even bigger influence on the genre. To ignore the pull of nostalgia is to simply miss the point of many horror flicks.

One such flick is the 2004 Roger Corman produced creature-feature Dinocroc, a giant croc/dinosaur revival horror-action movie that exists mainly to remind us of how much we loved other, better creature features.

To help me grasp the crucial retro warm-and-fuzzy element, I've gotten in touch with my inner child. It wasn't easy. On the advice of my doctor, spiritual advisor, and wardrobe consultant, I had my eternally youthful inner-me surgically removed in 1998. That same year, in desperate need of funds due some unforeseen legal complications that arose in connection to what some uncharitably referred to as "embezzlement," I sold him to a Nike factory in the Liaoning region of Northeast China. Escaping his bondage, he then stowed away aboard a Norwegian tramp steamer headed for San Francisco. There he spent several years at a progressive safari company for hunters of extinct species. The younger me wore the California Grizzly cub outfit. He was hospitalized several times. It was on his fourteenth work-related hospital stay that I was finally able to track him down.

For the purposes of this review, the younger me will be identified as CR. Welcome to the blog, CR.

CR: Yo.

CRwM: CR, we usually start these things off with a plot summary. Will you do the honors?

CR: There's this starting bit about a guy on a boat who is hunting crocodiles, only it looks like he gets eaten. But then, it's like nighttime and he hasn't been eaten. Instead, he's killed the giant crocodile that was going to eat him. And the guy cuts the croc open and there's like a kid in there, visible in the croc's belly. Then suddenly, the dude is all, "Ahhhhhhh" and he wakes up sweaty.

Then the movie really starts. Like, so there's a company, Evil Corporation, and they make genetic stuff. That means, you know, they're going to end up making dinosaurs. 'Cause most genetic corporations exist mainly to bring back really deadly animals or take living animals that eat people and make them even deadlier. That's really like the point of science. Except, instead of making T. Rex's and stuff, they make a giant dinosaur crocodile. Though, really, it's like just a CGI shrunken down version of Gorgo, Godzilla's gay British cousin. This thing breaks out in like the first two seconds of the movie and starts running around the company grounds.

CRwM: Fans of late-onset Corman produced stuff – if that's possible – may recognize the beast as a slightly tweaked version of the "superalligator" from the Corman produced flick of the same name.

CR: The doctor who made the thing is like, "Well, that's not good. According to science, there's no telling who could be eaten!" And his boss, a lady you can tell is evil because she dresses really business-like and has a European accent is like, "We'll hire that guy who was screaming at the beginning of the movie. In the meantime, have some guy go feed it dogs. Because I'm evil."

CRwM: The growth hormone/dog thing is lifted from 1980's Alligator, the John Sayles penned creature feature that is the ur-text of all big bad crocogator films. It's the first in a steady stream of swipes. The employee charged with feeding the croc gets snatched off a pier in a scene that reminds the viewer of the classic, far superior "fishing with a pot roast" scene in Jaws. At times, I caught myself wondering if the script for Dinocroc just read: ". . . and then the Jaws scene, cut to the flashlight in the monster's eye thing from Jurassic Park, cut to shadow in sewer scene from Alligator, and roll credits."

CR: So then there's this kid looking for his lost dog. And the dog catcher - who is like totally hot for the kid's brother, a sculptor who is totally tough, because he's got tattoos, and totally deep, 'cause he mumbles a lot and squints when he looks at people – says she'll help find the dog, but we don't ever see that dog again. I guess the filmmakers forgot about it.

CRwM: I'm especially fond of the tattoo on the sculptor's right shoulder as it appears to be the Harley Dividson logo. But, for legal reasons I guess, the filmmakers were hesitant to actually use the motorbike producer's name and the logo's famed banner is just blank. It give the impression that the sculptor lost interest or ran out of money half-way through the process of getting inked.

CR: Anyway, the sculptor and the dog catcher go looking for the dog on Evil Corporation's land and almost get eaten y the dinocroc. The scientist who made the monster saves them. Eventually, he explains that Evil Corporation's Monster Development Division made the thing and that they've hired the dude from the beginning of the movie to hunt the monster down. The dude from the beginning of the movie is this Australian guy, so he's all like, "Gah day, mate. I'm here to kill your croc. Gah day, I'm dingoing in your wallaby." He's a kind of a dill hole.

That night, while the dog catcher and the sculptor get all kissy-faced, the sculptor's little brother goes out looking for his dog. Instead of finding the dog, the croc totally eats his ass.

CRwM: I actually have to give credit to Dinocroc for being so ruthless. The kid not only gets it pretty early, but it is probably the movie's most gruesome kill.

CR: Dude, it like pops through the floor of the shack on a pier and like snaps it's jaws around the kid. And the kids freakin' head pops off and comes zooming at the camera! It was awesome! We rewound that and watched a bunch of times. It was the coolest part of the movie.

The next day, the Australian guy, the sculptor, the scientist, and the dog catcher chase the dinocroc to a local lake off of Evil Corporation land. It's like an all-you-can-eat dinocroc buffet. That's when the second coolest kill of the movie happens: the dinocroc snaps up this water skier on the fly. It's super funny. But when the heroes try to kill the Dinocroc, the scientist falls in and he's like, "According to science, it's eating me!" And he dies.

Then the press and the cops are all up in Evil Corporation's business and the French lady the runs the place is like, "Yes, we're very sad. Talk to our lawyers." Then the cops find the dead kid's bike and his brother's so all-man that when the dog catcher tries to comfort him, he shrugs her off and goes to the bar. And there's some blah blah with the croc hunter that I kind of tuned out.

CRwM: We find out the person in the croc's belly at the beginning of the film was the croc hunter's son. So he's got a thing against crocs.

CR: Was it a dinocroc?

CRwM: Was what a dinocroc?

CR: The thing that ate his son?

CRwM: No. Just a regular croc. But he blames them all for it. That's why he hates them.

CR: But they all didn't do it. It's like being racist against all crocodiles because one of them was bad.

CRwM: Um. Sure. Very, um, astute. Summarize the rest of the movie.

CR: So the cops go to kill the croc. An the dog catcher and the croc hunter are like, "Your attack will never work!" And the chief, who is the dog catcher's dad, says, "It'll work." And then the dinocroc eats a bunch of cops and the chief's like, "That didn't work. My bad. Let's try that other plan you guys wanted to do in the first place."

CRwM: Now leave the story hanging, so you don't ruin it and you leave the reader wanting to see the film.

CR: But instead of that plan working, they hit dinocroc with a train and kill him. After he eats the French lady. How do they do that? You'll have to find out yourselves.

CRwM: Good enough.

So, what did you think of film? Did it appeal to you by evoking the creature features of old?

CR: To be honest, I thought this was – even by the admittedly low standards we hold crocogator flicks to – a weak outing. It's one thing to rely on allusions to connect with your audience and establish certain traditional genre expectations. But what Dinocroc does amounts to little more than cut-and-paste movie making. The filmmakers allow themselves a few comedic touches and can display a pleasing streak of cruelty, but these lively hints of real feeling are far too few in number to redeem the film as a whole. Finally, for fans of the crocogator sub-genre, the Pete's Dragon-ish monster design takes it out of the sub-genre without any corresponding benefit for the innovation – if you're going to go all monster, it should be able to do something you couldn't have done with just a big croc. As much as we love anything with scales, a wetland habitat, and a bad attitude, I can help but feel disappointed by Dinocroc.

CRwM: Wow. Nicely put.

CR: Does this mean I don't have to go back into the cage in the basement.

CRwM: Nice try, little man. Nice try.

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