Creature Comforts – From shivers to slithers in the American suburban imagination

Image credits: 'Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys' (2014). Cheesiness has its place in contemporary culture

I was watching a relatively uneventful horror movie the other day, Blood Lake - Attack of the Killer Lampreys (TV Movie 2014), and was struck by something in it. I don’t mean the lousy acting, mediocre CGI effects, fleshy moments or boring, generic org music. That goes without saying, and for what it’s’ worth, some of the acting wasn’t half bad, and there was a little bit of a moral subtext in there worth admiring – the family sticking together and democratic inclusion on the part of the father/husband prototype.

By Emad Aysha

Nope, what caught my eye was a scene where the hero consults with an expert on lampreys – bloodsucking tube-like fish – and the guy speaks with an Australian accent. That jogged a memory of another creature feature I’d encountered, Slugs: The Movie (1988).

You also have a scene there where the hero consults an expert, a Britisher, about the mutated killer slugs terrorising the small town. Americans regularly confuse Brits with Ossies and think of an Australian accent as posh, even to the point of using them to narrate documentaries or play butlers!

The Lamprey movie was formulaic as hell. You have the hero nobody listens to, the health inspector or small-town sheriff prototype, explicitly ignored by the mayor or his superiors for naked electoral or financial reasons.

You have hot chicks showing off their bodies and often coming to sticky ends, divine punishment for wanting to do something improper. (You get a lot of this in Jaws, as you can see). You have the hero’s partner getting killed while trying to save the world and the hero feeling guilty about it but riding off into the sunset nonetheless.

You have the creature menace being a foil for the human evils causing the problem – big fish eating little fish – and, interestingly, the old-world Englishman standing in for the wisdom of ages. Shades again of Jaws with Quint’s character, someone who does turn out to be right half the time, even if he can’t be allowed to survive by the end of the movie. (In with the new, out with the old is an American philosophy).

There are differences however between the two movies, a sign of the times, both in terms of how different the US once was and also how much the moviemaking industry has changed. The women in the Lamprey movie are much more proactive, such as the wife (played by Shannen Doherty) and the hero's daughter.

The daughter’s decision to defy her dad over who she’s dating turns out to be okay, and she even saves her boyfriend at one point using a weedwhacker on those pesky lampreys. They don’t kill the dog in the movie when the miserable mutt is swimming in the lake, unlike what happens in Jaws.

The women in Slugs are very passive, not necessarily wrong or even unwise but are mostly there to be either damsels in distress, eye candy, or chow for the slugs. It’s like their deliberate victims, either failing at being housewives, being simple wage labourers or obnoxious housewives, or being married to older men for financial security. I presume this is a social commentary on the part of the 1980s with Reagan’s America, something that wouldn’t wash nowadays.

On the plus side, however, the politics in Slugs is better, since the plot's focal point is a shopping mall that will be built on a former toxic waste dump, which releases poison gases that mutate the slugs. The mayor is only concerned with that deal, not so much as batting an eyelid on behalf of his poor employee who dies (horrendously) because of the slugs. You could actually imagine something like that happening.

The corrupt major, played terribly by Christopher Lloyd, in the Lamprey movie is excuseless, implausible and clichéd. The sheriff in Slugs instead is responsible and sees the light by the end of the film in a way that surprises you.

Another plus point for the older movie is the pacing and plotting; it is genuinely creepy and doesn’t give too much of the game away early on, with plenty of foreshadowing of crucial plot points early on.

The practical effects are also excellent, especially with the guy whose head gets eaten from the inside out, the unfaithful wife who gets gorged to death and the whole sewer sequence. The CGI in Blood Lake by contrast are terrible, and the plot is very rushed and full of implausibilities.

America ‘may’ have improved since the Reagan era, but its moviemaking doesn’t seem to have kept up to speed, if not relapsed and gone backwards. There is a systematic downgrading of all facets of cinema in the US, from writing to editing to special effects. The old-world smarts of the 1980s forced moviemakers to innovate storytelling and special effects solutions to involve the audience, instead of penny-pinching the producers.

MIGRANT BACKLASH: A scene from 'Slugs' (1988). Look whose preying on who in whose backyard!

I’ll say one more thing in the Lamprey movie’s favour before closing. The lampreys climb up the dam’s walls out of sheer desperation, starved, and attack people as an alternative food source.

I get the feeling that this is a reference to Mexican immigrants scaling the walls of Trump’s then planned exclusion wall. It shows how societal antagonisms show up in the mirror of genre works and pop culture more effectively than in pieces of realism.

Genres like SF moreover give you hope of solving these problems through policy and technology. The Arab world and its outdated arts take heed. We’re dis-improving our entertainment industries while our society isn’t advancing to begin with!!

 

Emad Aysha

Academic researcher, journalist, translator and sci-fi author. The man with the mission to bring Arab and Muslim literature to an international audience, respectably.
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