Monday, September 9, 2013

1. Horticultural Horror

It would seem difficult to make a plant—flower, vegetable, tree—scary or threatening.  Many have attempted to do so, in horror or science fiction, in movies, even in a rock musical.  But plants cannot move willfully, and lack intelligence or consciousness.  Most of the time they are very still.  Admittedly there may be some suspense at various stages of a plant’s life cycle.  What will those strange seeds look like when they sprout in the garden?  How will that unnervingly large bloom appear when it finally opens?  How far will that thick ropy tendril reach?  Did I just see it move a little?

But plants are unable to see you or track your movements like a more conventional predator.  To make them frightening, one can amplify some of their negative attributes: toxicity, the vigorousness of their growth, the sharpness of spines, and the degree to which they can consume other organisms, as insectivorous plants do.  Or one can give them human and animal characteristics, mobility being the primary one.  Prehensile limbs, a face with aggressive eyes, a mouth to emphasize the ability to swallow, and a fragrance or a bloom that can lure the unwary are all important traits that can weaponize the vegetable world—and make plants more like humans in ability and motivation.

From childhood I still remember an awful movie I saw one afternoon after school.  If I saw it now I would find it laughable, but as a child it was horrifying and sleep destroying.  There was a jungle, and a swamp, and skulls everywhere, and people fighting, and a big black monster with a jack-o’-lantern face.  The monster was a tropical tree that could sneak up on people and strangle or crush them with its huge pincer like hands.  How a tree could sneak up on anyone—especially indoors—is difficult to imagine.  But horror does not have to make sense.  It may be scarier if it makes no sense at all.

The movie was From Hell It Came (1957)—already a source of anxiety simply by having a “bad word” in the title.  The back story involved an island prince who was wrongly prosecuted for a murder and then executed native islander style with a knife driven into his heart.  His remains were then deposited inside a hollow tree trunk.  It being the late 1950s, atomic radiation transforms the prince and the tree into a “tobonga”, which goes on a rampage.  Justice is done when the evil witch doctor, the real murderer, is attacked by the tobonga and impaled on a crown of shark’s teeth.  The creature is later deactivated by some quick thinking American scientists.  (It was too small a job to bring in the U.S. military, which would have been the more typical response.)

As the tobonga dies, its scowling Halloween face sinks into the mire of a swamp, thereby combining a hideous face, fear of drowning, and the weirdness of animated vegetable life.

There have been many movies that feature scary plant life, either as the subject of the film, or one of its terrifying props.  Here are some of my old favorites:

The Thing From Another World (1951)—is a vegetable life form
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
From Hell It Came (1957)
The Little Shop Of Horrors (1960)
The Day of the Triffids (1963)
Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (1963)—based on W.H. Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night”
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)—episode with the “creeping vine”
Maneater of Hydra/Island of the Doomed (1967)
Creepshow (1982)—episode of “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”

Now that summer is coming to an end, I would like to spend the next few posts out in the garden, and see what is coming up there.

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