“Man’s Heart Away From Nature Becomes Hard”: Thoughts on Eco-Horror Films of the 1970s
The decade of the 1970s ushered in an unprecedented intellectual, philosophical, and scientific upsurge in the areas of environmentalism and nature conservation. Concerns with despoliation of nature and its concomitant effects propelled the scientific community to exhort legislators to be heedful of the state of the non-human environment during this period. Anxiety over potential/foreseeable/inevitable ecological fragility lead to the first observation of Earth Day in 1970 (March 21, the first day of Spring), creation of the Back-to-the-Land movement, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, major amendments to the Clean Air Act, the passing into federal law in 1972 of the Clean Water Act, the formation of CITES in 1975, and the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975). These measures culminated in the decade-closing appearance of James Lovelock’s Gaia: a New Look at the Earth (1979), which promulgated the Gaia Principle.
As during the decade of the 1950s when apprehension over atomic power supplied Hollywood with material for innumerable ‘creature features’, so this new uneasiness over ecological entropy gave way to a resurgence of similarly-themed Eco-Horror films throughout the 1970s. With eco-system sustainability, biodiversity, and land ethics under fire, Hollywood responded with a liberal (Liberal) serving of Man versus Nature horror shows. One of the earliest of these was Frogs from 1972, directed by George McCowan and starring Sam Elliott, Ray Milland, and Joan Van Ark. In this ‘Nature-bites-back’ shocker, Jason Crockett (Milland) and his kin, a family of feckless and privileged southerners, are ‘besieged’ by the fauna surrounding their plantation-style manor: the croaking of the frogs keeps them awake at night. Complete with African American servants (slaves), the film seems an antebellum morality play. Waging war against the amphibians requires the constant spraying of pesticides. Crockett views man as ‘master of all’, a philosophical tenet that clearly allows him to effect his quasi-system of slavery, as well as his systematic environmental poisoning. Events unfold over Crockett’s birthday which, coincidentally, is also Independence Day. With the Crockett demesne draped in Stars and Stripes bunting, the film continually inserts shots of the advancing army of marching (hopping) frogs as they approach the homestead.
Intruding into this seeming southern idyll is Pickett (Sam Elliott), a freelance photographer capturing images for a magazine layout. The film’s opening credit sequence features Pickett paddling a canoe, hearkening back to a bygone era of serene exploration. This pacific and tranquil marshland setting is broken only by the soft lapping of waves and the gentle click of Pickett’s camera. He begins photographing images of the apparent pristine environs, of the resident flora and fauna. This pastoral serenity is quickly vitiated when he begins capturing images of environmental contamination: sludge spewing from drain pipes, scum foaming the water’s surface, floating aluminum cans. This physical pollution is then accompanied by audible pollution with the discordant sound of a motor boat; a member of the Crockett clan drunkenly joyriding (Cole Crockett, believing he is entitled to do whatever he feels on, and to, the water). The swell from the motor craft causes Pickett’s canoe to capsize and leads eventually to his introduction to the Crockett patriarch. It is obvious the film presents an antagonistic duality between the two main male characters, especially given the similarity of their nomenclature. Pickett is the ecologically dedicated interloper, Crockett the equally dedicated despoiler. Pickett is young, virile, and idealistic. Crockett is old, pragmatic (in his view), and infirm, being confined to a wheelchair. Despite his abundant wealth, it is obvious Crockett is a superannuated capitalist, representing an unrealistic, antediluvian, and decaying way of life. Forced to comply with costly anti-pollution controls, he is particularly aggrieved. This is America, his property, and he should be free to do as he pleases. What he fails to recognize is that nature has reached its breaking point, and in consequence, the Crockett household is depleted through deadly encounters with tarantulas, lizards, alligators, snapping turtles, birds, and for Jason, frogs.
Released the same year, Night of the Lepus (dir. William F. Claxton), hues close to mutant-monster tropes of the 1950s. In the film man’s meddling with nature produces gigantic, carnivorous, chemically-modified rabbits which run amok through an Arizona town. Attempting to control and combat an invasion of rabbits on his farm, rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun), turns to scientists Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh). Their solution is to use chemicals to interrupt the breeding cycle of the rabbits. Of course, events go awry and instead of controlling the normal rabbit population, an army of oversized bunnies is created. While the film is arrant nonsense, and no more terrifying than a Bugs Bunny short, its metaphorical cautionary element about overpopulation certainly lends it a modicum of gravity and ‘70s pertinence. Generously, one can find themes of import within its ludicrous narrative framework: (i)the chemical procreative control of a species recalls the eugenic experimentation and the forced sterilization conducted by the Nazis; and (ii) the folly of man tampering with the natural reproductive cycle of a species. The film works best as an ironic comment on human propagation. The ‘rabbit test’, for decades a means to determine whether a human female is pregnant, resulted in the death of the subject rabbit, whether the female turned out to be pregnant or not. Claxton’s film can be viewed as a crafty revenge tale, in which the rabbits get even, by not only reproducing unrestrained, but by becoming carnivorous as a result of their mutation, thus culling the human population which for years had decimated the rabbit population.
Empire of the Ants (dir. Bert I Gordon, 1977), like Lepus, features another modified species. Exposed to illegal dumping of chemical waste, ants in Florida grow to the size of automobiles. Real estate developer, and “bitch”, Marilyn (Joan Collins), attempts to inveigle a group of prospective buyers into purchasing property in a new development called Dreamland Shores. She assembles the group for a tour of the land. Despite the halcyon-sounding realty, Dreamland Shores is actually worthless swampland; Marilyn is running a fraudulent beachfront property scam. A shyster, she is as culpable as the anonymous polluters who dump barrels of toxic waste off of Dreamland Shores during the opening of the film. When she announces to the tour group, “if we’re really lucky we may get a glimpse of the fascinating wildlife in this area”, irony is really all the film has to offer. Unbeknownst to Marilyn, the ‘clients’ she has lured on her tour are comprised completely of individuals nearly as duplicitous as herself: Miss Ellis has just been recently terminated, Joe has no job and owes a fortune in alimony, Henry and Velma, are retirees who have only come along for the free food, and Larry, although married, wastes no time in hitting up another woman. Marilyn, like the queen ant she is forced to confront at the conclusion of the film, is equally as predatory, herding her group of followers in a fashion similar to the natural trait of the ants. The ants instinctually attack other ants for supremacy and position-a characteristic which is observed within the tour group itself (though lacking the social component that makes the ant so formidable a creature). For example, rather than risk his life, Larry watches his wife Christine being killed by the giant insects. Marilyn’s group of possible buyers therefore suggests individuals at the low end of the human evolutionary chain. Much like Frogs, Ants presents a subverted Darwinian struggle with the worthless, cowardly, ineffectual humans being exterminated by a now advanced, aggressive dominant non-human species. Total supremacy is seen towards the end of the film when one realizes that the ants, using pheromones, have indoctrinated the entire resident population. As the chief of police asserts, “we can work for them, feed them, that’s the way it should be, since they are superior”.
Rattlers (dir. John McCauley, 1976) takes place in an oft-used setting for the horror films of the 1950s; that of the baked, harsh, arid, and barren desert. This setting of course deliberately recalls government sanctioned atomic explosions, the work at Los Alamos, and the 1945 Trinity Test at Alamogordo (New Mexico). In the film a herpetologist, Dr. Tom Parkinson (Sam Chew), is asked to investigate a series of deaths that appear to be caused by rattlesnakes. As Parkinson affirms, reptiles do not usually make unprovoked attacks. Since one victim was killed while asleep, the behaviour of the snakes thus becomes perplexing. The puzzle is eventually solved when Tom discovers an army installation in the desert which has been creating a new form of nerve gas, a covert, government-sanctioned bio-chemical weapon to be used should the Cold War heat up. Eventually ordered to scrap the project, barrels of this new nerve gas are buried in a mine shaft and ultimately infect the existing rattler population. Predictably, the base is operated by the renegade and hawkish Colonel Stroud. A fanatical Cold War warrior, he continues with the production of the viral CT3, justifying his insubordination with the paranoid proclamation “Do you think the Chinese or Russians care about the Geneva Conventions?” Enough films of the 1970s traded on a prevalent American belief in their government’s nefarious activities. Watergate confirmed that reality, while fictional films such as The Parallax View, Executive Action, The Killer Elite, and Three Days of the Condor, maintained that sense of shadowy CIA machinations and political mistrust. Rattlers depiction of a government installation producing deadly biological weapons, of bypassing safety protocols regarding disposal, of burying toxins in the ground, and the creation of homegrown environmental catastrophes mirror such actual calamities of the Seventies such as Love Canal and Three Mile Island.
Interestingly, Lepus and Ants, two films which are throwbacks to the era of 1950s gigantic creature features, attempt to mitigate their ostensible implausibility with prologues emphasizing and espousing scientific fact to support their dubious subject matter. The Night of the Lepus opens with actual newsreel footage depicting a plague of rabbits rampaging through Australia in the 1950s. Empire of the Ants uses documentary footage of the insects and provides narration in sonorous prophet-of-doom cadences to sell its message of impending peril. The Eco-Horror film of the 1970s attempts to not be the nonsensical cautionary parables of the 1950s atomic age. A decade’s worth of cinema which presented radioactive-mutated arachnids (Tarantula, 1955), ants (Them!, 1954), dinosaurs (The Beast From 20 000 Fathoms, 1953), and a giant octopus (It Came From Beneath the Sea, 1955), among others. It certainly helped that the 1971 documentary The Hellstrom Chronicles presented, (according to IMDB), “a scientist explain[ing] how the savagery and efficiency of the insect world could result in their taking over the world”, would end up garnering an Academy Award nomination. Two years later the film Phase IV (dir. Saul Bass) illustrated a fictionalized version of the above, with regular-sized ants attacking a scientific installation in the desert. The eco-horror film of the 1970s, despite its occasional fantastic narrative, ushered in an era of seeming scientific validity and authenticity. The cinema-goer of the 1970s was more willing to be informed and educated. The ecological fear these films attempted to exploit, persuasively had the potential for credibility, in comparison to the horror films of the dawning atomic age.
– dszostak –