FILM & TELEVISION
Monsters and monster mash-ups really started to make a comeback in the 21st century. I believe that Buffy played a large role in this. It may not have been the most statistically successful show, but it was dramatically influential on the next generation of film & television writers, and particularly upon the geek arts fan base. Your traditionally male fantasy & sci-fi crowd dismissed it as girl stuff or wrote it off as lacking the grim-browed seriousness they demanded at the time, but in our post-broadcast digital media era where binge-viewing is becoming the norm, holders of the platinum geek card now know better than to underrate the power of the Whedonverse. I would go so far as to claim that the ever-deepening long-form narrative of Buffy and Angel made shows like Lost possible, and therefore much of what we expect from televised drama today.
Of course, it sure didn't hurt that the technology capable of bringing the fantastical to life was improving at an exponential rate. In a very short amount of time, we've seen the spawning of an environment where even the slightest flaw in the illusion triggers self-righteous nerd-rage, so one has to question what we've really gained.
Monster Mash - 2000
A DiC Entertainment animated musical about monsters that aren't scary anymore (probably because of all the terrible cartoons made about them), based on the name of that song you hate.
Do I even need to say it? 'Cause I'm certainly not going to watch it.
Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack - 2001
see link for writing team
Directed by Sushuke Kaneko
Featuring: Godzilla, Baragon, Mothra & King Ghidorah
I've never been a hardcore Godzilla fan in the past. I didn't often seek them out but made a point to watch them when I stumbled across one here or there. So if you, like I, have been baffled by the continuity of the overarching Godzilla saga, that's because there really isn't one. Different eras have a certain loose connectivity, but overall, it just really hasn't mattered. In Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, that point is made somewhat clearer. It overlooks everything but the original 1954 movie, so when Godzilla rises again, he hasn't been seen in almost 50 years. The other monsters, Baragon, Mothra and King Ghidorah are all new, per this continuity. They're now legendary guardians of Japan, summoned from their ten thousand year slumber beneath all-but-forgotten shrines.
The effects are certainly updated, but not as much as you might think. I don't think there's any CGI here, or if there is, it's really just to add effects (atomic breath, etc.) to a more refined version of the same kind of effects that they used for, well, almost 50 years. The monsters are still sweaty dudes in rubber suits. There's less use of miniatures except where direct interaction is required. Instead, outdoor scenes are shot on location and edited together with the hot monster on monster action. It mostly works. The increased realism just makes things like Ghidorah's heads thrashing around, Baragon crawling on his knees and Mothra's slow, rigid wings stand out all the more starkly.
Also needing some updating is the writing and acting. Cornball nostalgia is one thing. Modern cornball is just cornball. I don't mean it to sound that bad. It's still a lot of fun and it does look pretty good most of the time. The fights are kind of brutal, with monsters sinking their teeth into each other and some definitive destruction. Also, because they're not beholden to any particular continuity, they don't cheap out on the conclusion. Giant Monsters All-Out Attack mostly lives up to its name.
Underworld - 2003
Written by Danny McBride (No, sadly, not that Danny McBride)
Directed by Len Wiseman
Featuring vampires, werewolves (lycans) and a hybrid vampire/lycan
Underworld pays homage to the classic movie monsters with an updated mythology and stylish execution. Kate Beckinsale is the perpetually leather-and-latex-clad vampire, Selene. It's her job to fight the werewolves (here known as "lycans" and not beholden to full moons) in the centuries-old war between the two species of night-dwellers. She stumbles onto a Lycan plot to create a hybrid vampire/werewolf, which throws the internal politics of both clans into chaos, especially when she falls in love with the hybrid and learns that all is not as she has been told in this clan rivalry. There are some pretty clever ideas at work here and the creators build a suitably re-imagined world for these warring factions to inhabit. The lycans are well designed, as is everything, and the action is as slick as the raindrops beading off Beckinsale's shiny hiney. Bill Nighy makes full use of his fangs to really chew the scenery in a tonally appropriate way. It takes itself ridiculously seriously, but I never felt that it expected me to.
Freddy vs. Jason - 2003
Written by Damian Shannon & Mark Swift
Directed by Ronny Yu
Featuring a disfigured homicidal maniac who's already dead and a disfigured homicidal maniac who cannot die
It seems that Freddy just can't get his kill on like he used to. The teens of Elm Street have been shielded from his memory, and just don't fear him anymore. So he tricks Jason into doing a little stabbing on his behalf, just to prime the pump for a comeback, as it were. The film seems to hinge, in part, upon the idea that making kids ignorant is an effective defense against fear, which strikes me as wrong, but obviously no one is here for the subtext. Worse, however, is the misogyny, much of which falls upon Katharine Isabelle's character (she discovers the mangled body of her apparently abusive boyfriend, then gets murdered herself while she's being raped). Speaking of rape, Freddy seems much more rapey here than I recall him being in the original Nightmare films. Where once it was his backstory, it now seems to occupy more of his thoughts... and menace.
But you did come for the bloody fan service, and FvJ delivers that. Jason eventually figures out that he's been manipulated and the two master slashers turn their attention to each other. Jason takes a beating in Freddy's nightmare world, and Freddy takes a beating in Jason's physical world. The end seemingly calls back the end of King King vs Godzilla with an uncertain outcome and one figure swimming away. All in all, what can one expect from a trashy monument to trashy fun?
Van Helsing - 2004
Written and Directed by Stephen Sommers
Featuring: Dracula & his brides, Frankenstein's monster, werewolves, Mr. Hyde, some creepy little troll things and vampire demon babies
I'll let you in on a little secret. A large part of the motivation behind this article was to show Van Helsing in its proper context. It is, after all, a Universal monster mash-up; a fact which has been overlooked by rage-nerds from all across the internet. Is it silly? Sure, but that's its legacy too. Have you SEEN House of Dracula? Well I have now. Silly can be a whole lot of FUN, and "fun" is the lightning-charged heart of Van Helsing.
Wolverine plays Van Helsing, who is to the Catholic church what James Bond is to MI-6, right down to the unlikely gadgets that prove surprisingly handy. In the opening, he pursues Mr. Hyde (as in Dr. Jekyl and...) through Paris, bound to bring him in dead or alive. His next assignment is Transylvania, where he's sent to assist a gypsy woman (Kate Beckinsale in leather pants, natch) who represents the last in a bloodline committed to ending Dracula's reign of terror. There's really quite a lot going on in this movie. Tense moments of exposition bridge action-packed set pieces. They team up with Frankenstein's monster, which is a really fantastic character/creature design.
In fact, the whole movie is packed with great designs for costumes, monsters, gadgets and places. Are some of the CGI effects imperfect? So what? They serve their purpose. Zip it, whiners. Van Helsing packs a TON of effects for a May release. It's not supposed to look like a July movie. The fact is, the effects are fine and they move the story and action along the way they need to. Van Helsing is exactly what it means to be, and that's a roller coaster tribute to Universal's monster mash-ups that actually has more story and indulgent thrills for today's less patient audiences. Perhaps its greatest fault is expecting joyless geeks to catch the wink.
Hellboy - 2004
Written by Guillermo del Toro
from the Comics by Mike Mignola
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Featuring: demons, a gill man, a clockwork assassin, a reanimated corpse, a demon-infused Rasputin & the Old Ones
In the interest of full disclosure, there wasn't much chance of me disliking Hellboy, being a fan of the comic since before it came out (I saw Mignola's sketchbook at a con, so neener), but if it had betrayed the source material, I totally could have turned on it as well. With Guillermo del Toro at the helm, there was really very little cause for concern.
During WWII, Allied soldiers interrupt a bizarre team of Nazi operatives amid a strange occult ritual. When the smoke has settled, they discover that the ritual had some effect, although it's unclear whether it was the desired effect. A bright red demon child with a giant stone hand was pulled into our world, whom they dub "Hellboy." Hellboy is raised by Dr Bruttenholm ("Broom"), the paranormal scientist on the team, and as he grows, he goes to work in pretty much the only way he could; serving the Bureau for Paranormal Research & Defense as their number one monster puncher.
Decades later, the Nazi operatives are still active. Serving the Reich was really just a conduit for their true plans; bringing about the end of the world for their Lovecraftian god. It turns out that Hellboy has a role to play in their plans, but he's really not the "destiny" type.
Hellboy's world is filled with all kinds of creatures drawn from literature and legend, and he's right at home in the middle of it with his teammates; gill-man Abe Sabien, and Liz Sherman who starts more fires than the one in Hellboy's heart.
Alien vs Predator - 2004
Written & Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Featuring: Aliens & Predators
Dark Horse Comics originated the crossing-over of the Aliens and Predator franchises, which then spread back to the cinematic worlds despite some pretty major ret-conning. Predators come to modern day Earth, activating an Alien-stocked ritual hunting ground in a pyramid under the Antarctic ice. A human expedition from Weyland-Yutani Corp makes the mistake of getting in the way, so, death. It's thin and corny without a thought in its head, but it's a reasonably fan-pleasing affair from the guy behind the Resident Evil films. Hold that, back up a little. It's pleasing for the fans that just want to see Aliens and Predators unleashing violence. It offers little of the dramatic tension of the original Ridley Scott Alien, but then so little else has.
Godzilla: Final Wars - 2004
Written by Isao Kiriyama & Ryuhei Kitamura
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura
Featuring: ALL of the giant monsters
What a difference three years makes! Someone at Toho evidently had the same thoughts that I had about Giant Monsters All-Out Attack." Final Wars still uses location footage, but far more extensive use of miniatures to put the mass back in "mass destruction." But let me rewind a moment...
Final Wars is indeed the final Godzilla movie from Toho. They vowed not to make another for at least ten years, and they haven't. I understand they even filled in the pool they used to shoot water scenes, so if and when they come back, it seems pretty clear that they are going to have to have retooled their production line.
The film takes place in an alternate universe. I guess they'd really all have to, but at least in the past they've been presented in a real-world-dealing-with-unreal-monsters framework. Where All-Out Attack chose to ignore all but the first movie, Final Wars embraces the legacy. In the continuity here, Godzilla first appeared in 1954, then continued to return along with most of the other monsters. It's non-specific about which movies and stories are continuity, but the idea that the monsters from all previous films existed in some form or another is more the point. It's paying tribute to the totality of Toho history before it closes the book on them -- and whoa baby, close the book it does.
As a reaction to the regular appearance of kaiju, the world has united to form the Earth Defense Force, many of whom are also mutated humans with increased strength and speed. They fend off the monsters with a giant drill-tipped flying submarine and springboard-enhanced karate poses. Oh yeah, Final Wars borrows a bit from the Ultraman types of shows that Godzilla inspired. The non-monster parts are much more action-packed in their own right, with acrobatic combat, sword fights and a motorcycle chase that would make Tom Cruise jealous. Where the human drama failed to live up to the scale of the rest of the movie in All-out, Final Wars pushes it way, way over the top. It's cornier than ever, but it works, even if there's too much of it in the third act.
So here in this alternative future, aliens suddenly appear to offer their friendship in a totally-not-suspicious way. It's essentially an updating of the story from Destroy All Monsters only with humans that actually do something. I'm sure this is hardly a coincidence, since Destroy was originally intended to be a "final" Godzilla movie for director Ishiro Honda. The Xillians, as they're known (because of course their true name would be too hard for we feeble humans to speak) took away the monsters as a gesture of good will, but when their true faces are revealed (literally) they unleash them on the world with nothing powerful enough to stop them. Except Godzilla. Destroy All Monsters' big third act throw-down featured all the monsters against King Ghidorah, which seemed kind of lame because they all just gang-rushed him. It made Godzilla look not-so-impressive and resulted in an overly brief fight. Final Wars gets the sides right. Godzilla fights EVERYONE, including making fast work of the weak-sauce American Godzilla wannabe (not to mention the Sydney Opera House). And they're not kidding about "final" either. Many of the opposing monsters get impaled or decapitated, and the final final showdown between our boy G and a super-mega new Kaizer Ghidorah occurs in the ruins of a place that can't strictly be called Tokyo any longer.
I don't know how any Godzilla fan could be disappointed with Final Wars, but birds gotta fly and nerds gotta bitch. It's an insane, over-the-top, all-action, self-serious-but-totally-silly music video of leather-posing wire-fu and rubber suited monster mashing, and it delivers. This is all I could have wanted (and more) to close out 50 years with the King of Monsters.
Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys - 2004
This happened too.
The Batman vs Dracula - 2005
Written by Duane Capizzi
Directed by Michael Goguen & team
Featuring: Dracula and the Joker
If Freddy Kreuger and Jason Vorhees are monsters, then isn't the Joker too? I say, sure, why not?
The Batman vs Dracula is a feature length animated feature from the "The Batman" period of animated Batman adventures. Which means it's not as good as the original Batman cartoons from the 90s, but it's still pretty good for a second-string team. The premise is pretty simple. Joker and Penguin break out of Arkham and race for a treasure stash in Gotham Cemetery. Penguin breaks into the wrong tomb and inadvertently raises Dracula from dusty death, and Dracula makes it his business to turn Gotham into a city of the undead. Batman disapproves of this business plan.
In Dracula, he has met a fellow bat man who is more than his match as a combatant -- 'scuse me, comBATant -- but then Batman is more than just a fighter, isn't he? Joker finally turns up at the tomb and gets himself vamped, which gives him some good scenes, but it's really not his film. Penguin serves in the Renfield role and Vicki Vale gets stuck with Mina Harker duty. The vampires are brutal and creepy, with a strong Nosferatu influence. They present a viable threat on a mass scale. That's what really sells the movie and makes it work as both a vampire tale and a Batman story worthy of the longer form treatment.
Underworld: Evolution - 2006
Written by Danny McBride
Directed by Len Wiseman
Featuring: vampires, werewolves & hybrids
Evolution picks up immediately after the original Underworld, following up on its semi-cliffhanger conclusion. The last surviving vampire elder is back, and more powerful than expected. More of the history behind the "immortal" species of vampires and werewolves is revealed in what essentially amounts to a chase movie. Selene & Michael flee the powerful Marcus, expanding our view of their world and encountering new characters from whom it is made, including the immortal father of both clans. Totally satisfying follow-up to the first with more monochromatically stylish violence.
Aliens vs Predator: Requiem - 2007
Written by Shane Salerno
Directed by The Brothers Strause
Featuring aliens and predators
Requiem rides the coattails of the first AvP's "BOO!" ending without really continuing the story. An alien-infected Predator crashes into a remote American mountain town, and then there's death.
At least I assume those noises were death, because almost the entirety of Requiem takes place in the dark. The woods at night. The sewer at night. Powerless buildings at night. It's not scary, it's just hard to see. It really undermines the fan service, and without the fan service, there's nothing left. See that picture? That's what happens when an Alien gestates in a Predator. That's the best part of the whole movie, and now you know.
Monsters in Autumn - 2007
Directed by Charlie Cline
Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolf Man look back on their lives and relationship.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army - 2008
Written by Guillermo del Toro
from the Comic by Mike Mignola
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Featuring: a demon, a gill-man, tooth fairies, an elemental, faeries, trolls, magical robots, an angel of death and plenty of god-knows-what
Hellboy and friends are back for more, and more is what they get. This sequel is overflowing with all manner of weirdness, and a surprising amount of beauty. As much as I liked the first, I really prefer The Golden Army.
After centuries inhabiting the hidden places in the world, the embittered prince of Faerie has treacherously laid claim to the throne, and the pieces of the crown that will empower him to control the Golden Army; a force of magical mechanical soldiers capable of destroying the world as we know it. His quest to gather the missing piece of the crown brings him to the attention of the BPRD and Hellboy. The search to understand his attack sends Hellboy into back-to-back outstanding set pieces; first delving into the Troll Market, where the creatures of myth do business under the noses of mankind, followed immediately by open combat with a giant elemental plant god, which is one of the most poignant battles you can imagine in such an wild and fantastical film. It's both thrilling and heartbreaking. And that's what makes me really love this movie. For all its high concepts and cartoonish violence, it has a tremendous amount of heart -- particularly in the nihilistic context of so many of our other big action films these days. Hellboy and Abe grapple with the concept of love like the outsiders they represent. Characters do bad things, but often for good reasons. This is not the mustache-twilring E-vil of the first movie's Nazi death-worshipers, and its willingness to love makes it lovable.
I Sell The Dead - 2008
Written & Directed by Glenn McQuaid
Featuring: vampire, zombies and an alien
From the seedier side of the Victorian age comes this horror/comedy about the misadventures of two grave robbers. Professional ghoul Arthur (Dominic Monaghan) offers his confession about his career stealing and selling corpses. His sentence is death, one way or the other, but he steadfastly denies having ever committed murder; of which the priest hearing his tale (Ron Perlman) is skeptical. The story is delivered in vignettes, which apparently confuses some viewers, but you are not them, my friend, and you do not need your hand held. Arthur explains how he got pulled into the business, and how an unscrupulous doctor (with more societal respect) was able to blackmail him and his partner into taking more dangerous jobs for even less money than usual. That sends them to a crossroads where they unearth a woman's corpse wreathed in garlic, with a stake through her heart. Another high-risk job leads them into conflict with a rival -- and much more ruthless -- gang of ghouls; the House Murphy. That conflict comes to a peak when both Arthur & Willie and House Murphy compete to retrieve two crates of unusual corpses lost at sea.
I Sell the Dead is a wholly unique story, presented with a consistent flow of good humor. Arthur and Willie don't question much and they haven't seen the movies we've see, which just makes it funnier when we're in on the jokes that elude (and chase) them.
Twilight - 2008
Written by Who Freaking Cares
Directed by It Couldn't Possibly Matter
Featuring: Sort-of Werewolves and Not-really Vampires
"Harry Potter is all about confronting fears, finding inner strength and and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend."
They made four of these freakin' things but I'm only mentioning it once and that's simply to satisfy my own self-imposed sense of obligation. I'll watch Gingerdead Man vs Evil Bong, but I won't watch these. I'm sorry and you're welcome.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans - 2009
see link for writing team
Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos
Featuring: vampires & werewolves
The completely unnecessary prequel that no one asked for. I can only assume that it was an excuse to bring the dead characters played by Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen back and remind us of things that we already knew about them. Due to its setting prior to Selene becoming a vampire, the similarly sassy English lassie Rhona Mitra fills the leather and latex cat suit. I suppose it might be satisfying for the fans who are all-in on the series mythology, but there's very little dramatic tension since we know how things are going to turn out 600 years later. While I never felt that the previous cared if I didn't take them seriously, Rise seemed to expect it. Looking back, I can only recall one stand-out action set piece, and it doesn't measure up to those than came before it.
Monsters vs Aliens - 2009
see link for writing team
Directed by Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon
Featuring: a gill-man, a blob, a 50 foot woman, an insectoid mad scientist and a kind of squirrel/caterpillar giant monster thing... versus aliens
It's Susan Murphy's big day. She's primped, prepped and pumped to marry her beau, Derek, and so what if he told her that the honeymoon in Paris is cancelled so he can audition for a news anchor job in Fresno? They're a team, aren't they?
And that's when a meteorite lands on her.
Moments later, scuffed by unscratched, she returns to the church to get on with the first day of the rest of her life. She has that glow about her -- wait, not that glow, the other glow. The hit-by-a-meteor-and-absorbed-cosmic-power-and-don't-they-grow-up-so-fast-no-I-mean-REALLY-fast kind of glow. In a matter of seconds, she's a 50 foot woman, and not much longer after that, she's in the custody of the US government. Fade to black.
Susan wakes up in a giant, windowless facility and soon discovers that she's not alone. She shares this prison with gill-man otherwise known as the Missing Link, Dr Cockroach; a mad scientist who overdid the insect DNA, a brainless blue blob called BOB, and, oh yeah, Insectosaurus, a squirrel-bug-dinosaur kind of thing that towers over even Susan. They have all been collected by a super-ultra-secret military division and kept imprisoned so the world never has to deal with the inconvenient knowledge of their existence. And that's the way it's going to be... until an intergalactic tyrant shows up looking to collect the power from the meteorite that started everything for Susan.
Monsters vs Aliens is better than average work from Dreamworks Animation. Well, let me be more specific; the story is better than average. The animation is weirdly stilted at times. Characters frequently goosestep inappropriately. Things don't move dynamically but remain rigid. Character design and art direction really lack the kind of inspiration that would make MvA truly special. The most disturbing are the normal humans. I would guess that they're all built on the same skeletal frames, then basically draped with meat. It results in some mechanical movement taking place within slack, dangling flesh. I think the root of the problem is the split that the animators targeted between cartoony and realistic. They seem to be trying to have it both ways and end up having neither. Obviously not everyone cares as much about that kind of thing as I do.
I still really enjoy (have enjoyed and will enjoy again) Monsters vs Aliens. The story has heart. The characters you're supposed to like are actually likeable. Susan's personal breakthrough feels earned. There are some big laughs, and lots of little homages to monster movies of the past.
Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl - 2009
Written by Naoyuki Tomomatsu
Directed by Yoshihiro Nishamura & Naoyuki Tomomatsu
As crazy as the title sounds, it really does nothing to express how babblingly insane the film itself is. Right off the bat, it helps to think of this as a cartoon that just happens to have people acting it out. The characters are all over-the-top exaggerations, perhaps best expressed by the high school social clubs to which they belong, including Lolita fashionistas, a suicide obsessed "wrist-cutters" club, and a ganguro club trying to emulate African Americans to an offensively caricatured degree. The principal of the school dresses as a kabuki performer, and doubles as a mad scientist assisted by the school nurse at night. However nutty that all sounds, I can assure you that you really have not grasped the full madness of this film.
Everything plays out in the biggest, craziest possible way. Monami is the new girl in school. It turns out she's also a vampire who has set her sights on Mizushima. To seduce him (and draw him into her world) she gives him chocolate laced with her blood. Unfortunately, Mizushima already has a girlfriend; Keiko. When Keiko figures out what's going on, she confronts Monami which leads to her falling from the school's roof It just so happens that the Kabuki/mad scientist principal is also Keiko's father, and he and the nurse conduct one of their experiments on Keiko's body to bring her back to life. Thus she becomes the titular "Frankenstein Girl" to Monami's "Vampire Girl."
And so the stage is set, and it won't be done until the stage is mopped with a bucket of blood. I can't call it a good movie, but it's ridiculously entertaining -- and I do mean ridiculously.
House of The Wolf Man - 2009
Written & Directed by Eben Garr
In the Venn diagram of Universal Monster crossover fans and sufferers of OCD, House of The Wolf Man is where they overlap. A modern film made to look like the completion of the 1940s "House of..." films with a nerd-pleasing trilogy.
Sadly, I am unable to discuss it in any greater depth as I have not yet been able to see it.
We bring it up to date in the final film entry with The Monster Mash-Ups - Part 7: the Teens!
Or you can start from the beginning with The Monster Mash-Ups - Part 1: the 1940s & 50s!