Happy First Day of Spring! The sun is shining a little longer. Birds are singing again in the morning. And the ground is starting to thaw. Soon nature will be alive and all around us. Maybe that’s not such a good thing. We haven’t treated nature very well. Horror scholars have long pointed out that the best examples of the genre tap into collective fears. Eco-horror movies, which enjoyed their best run in the 1970’s, reflect anxieties about our environmental impact. Specifically, eco-horror movies revolve around a natural horror punishing humanity for some environmental transgression. And no, Jaws doesn’t count. To celebrate the arrival of spring, this edition of The Chopping Block takes a look at some of the best and worst of 1970’s eco-horror.
Following the success of Jaws, studios rushed to churn out low-budget knock-off’s. A joint American-Italian effort, Tentacles was one of the worst of these derivative efforts. Somehow this story of a giant mutant octopus netted John Huston, Shelley Winters, and Henry Fonda for its cast. With its jarringly awful disco score and cheap-o effects, Tentacles manages one good jump. But the barely seen octopus looks terrible and largely plays for unintentional laughs. That its story so closely mimics Jaws doesn’t help. It’s watchable largely for the unintentional laughs.
Yet another Jaws knock-off, Orca is technically a bad movie. Its story of an orca seeking revenge against the fisherman responsible for the deaths of his mate and unborn offspring is beyond ridiculous. But Orca takes itself very seriously. Like Tentacles, Orca also had an inexplicably impressive cast that included Richard Harris, Will Sampson, and Charlotte Rampling. With some surprisingly good effects, Orca has a few good jolts. And the final show-down between the orca and Richard Harris’ fisherman actually kind of works. As a bonus, Ennio Morricone actually composed Orca’s atmospheric score.
Grizzly is basically Jaws on land. With an 18-foot Grizzly Bear. The story so closely follows Jaws’ template that it could be mistaken for a cheap remake. In spite of its derivative story and very low budget, Grizzly was a surprise box office hit. With that being said, Grizzly is my least favourite ‘70’s eco-horror movie on this list. Simply put, the effects and editing do a poor job of convincing you that a bear is actually attacking anyone on screen. Yes, I know this is a low-budget effort, but if you can’t reasonably suspend our disbelief, why bother?
Day of the Animals
Day of the Animals imagines a disturbing scenario. What if increased UV radiation entering the atmosphere due to ozone layer depletion drove animals mad? Though the premise is far-fetched, Day of the Animals plays it straight and almost pulls off a decent eco-horror movie. As compared to Grizzly, some of this 1977 movie’s animal attacks are almost compelling. Cougars, wolves, rats, vulture, hawks – Day of the Animals throws a bit of everything at you. In fact, one campfire scene may even pull off a good jump scare. But things quickly all off the rails as the movie drags on too long. Throw in some iffy effects and a ridiculously over-the-top performance from Leslie Nielsen and Day of the Animals spoils its early goodwill.
Long Weekend is the most distinct eco-horror movie on this list. First released in 1978, Long Weekend is a relatively obscure Australian horror movie. On the one hand, it’s a textbook example of eco-horror. A married couple head to the wilderness for a weekend camping getaway. They increasingly use and abuse their surrounding before nature finally strikes back. Yet in spite of its conventional story, Long Weekend’s execution is more art-house than low-budget horror. The movie is both strange and haunting.
On a list with movies defined by improbable premises, Frogs takes the cake. In this 1972 eco-horror movie, chemicals baron Jason Crockett have used and abused the Louisiana swamps surrounding their posh mansion. But the swamp’s frogs lead a revolt against the Crocketts. Tarantulas, rattlesnakes, birds, geckos, alligators – it’s an all-star revolution of nature vs man. Why or how would frogs communicate with other species? Who care. In spite of its flimsy premise, Frogs takes itself very seriously and somehow succeeds in entertaining. Stick around at the end for the unintentionally hilarious animated frog with a human hand in its mouth.