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10 Crazy Animal B-Movies Worth Way More Attention Than Sharknado

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If you're going to make an "animal attack!" movie, there are two ways to go: you can take the "serious" route and try to emulate at least a fraction of the cool class and calm intensity of Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975), or you can plant your tongue firmly within your cheek and try to be silly and scary at the same time. One would argue that the former approach is decidedly more difficult to pull off than the latter, and that you need only to switch over to Syfy for proof. That's where you'll find all the Crocosauruses, the Giant Octopi, and of course the Sharknadoes: frequently chintzy and sometimes willfully bad movies that ask you not to play along with a silly premise, but to actually laugh at the ineptitude being splattered across the screen.

With that in mind, let's shine a small spotlight on some of the crazier animal B-movies that, while frequently quite silly, all strive to be seen as legitimate comedic thrillers; films that ask to be laughed with, not at.

1. Squirm (1976)

Squirm, the directorial debut of Jeff Lieberman—a low-key horror hero who went on to helm Blue Sunshine (1978), Just Before Dawn (1981), and Satan's Little Helper (2004)—is about a small Georgia town that finds itself overrun by electrified, carnivorous earthworms. Yes, they pour out of shower heads, flood cellars, and get into the food supply. It's all pretty gross.

Although frequently quite straight-faced, Squirm seems to get a bit more silly and self-deprecating as the worm feast lurches on, plus you'll get to see some great early work from FX master Rick Baker, a few wonderfully over-the-top acting performances, and more worms than you'd ever want to experience in real life.

2. Piranha (1978)

When it comes to filmmakers who love movies, you simply won't find anyone like the genre-blendin', fun-lovin' child-at-heart known as Joe Dante. Long before he gave us matinee classics like The Howling (1981), Innerspace (1987), and both of the undeniably awesome Gremlins movies (1984 & 1990), Dante was hired by the legendary Roger Corman to do something kinda, sorta just like Jaws.

Fortunately the director was way too creative to construct just another tiresome rip-off. Backed by a clever screenplay by John Sayles, in which ravenous fish invade a summer resort, Piranha is clearly inspired by Jaws (and its massive financial success) but also has its own distinctly satirical edge. It's arguably the best of the Jaws copycats, specifically because it's already poking some fun at the genre's various tropes, themes, and cliches. Plus it's got some memorably creepy kills.

3. Prophecy (1979)

It would be an understatement to call the late John Frankenheimer an eclectic filmmaker, but it seems that the director of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and Grand Prix (1966) had a little trouble tackling the "animal attack!" sub-genre back in 1979. Although clearly intended as a dead-serious statement about pollution and the plight of Native Americans, Prophecy is a bit too stone-faced for its own good, and the result is an earnest but goofy monster movie in which an impressive cast is left wandering around in a forest while a freakish mutated bear picks them off one by one.

While the set-up is a bit slow, and the screenplay by David Seltzer (The Omen) often takes itself way too seriously, it's still sort of fun to see a basic B-level monster movie that was put together by Paramount, Frankenheimer, and a cast that includes Robert Foxworth, Talia Shire, Richard Dysart, and Armand Assante. Also there's a death scene involving a sleeping bag that you simply must see to adequately disbelieve.

4. Alligator (1980)

Although director Lewis Teague would go on to direct a considerably more intense killer animal flick with 1983's Cujo, it's the weird wit and sardonic tone of 1980's Alligator that elevate it beyond most movies of its ilk. Like Piranha, Alligator is both a full-bore nature-run-amok horror flick and also sly parody of horror movies in which nature runs amok, which only makes sense since both films were written by screenwriting demigod Sayles (he also wrote 1981's The Howling).

In addition to its colorful balance of nasty horror and wise-ass humor, Alligator also boasts some pretty decent special effects and an acting ensemble that includes Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Dean Jagger, and Henry Silva having a great time in the "Quint" role. Keep your eyes peeled for the infamous swimming pool sequence, which inspired nightmares in at least a million pre-teens throughout the 1980s.

5. Roar (1981)

Although best known for her work in a movie about killer birds, Tippi Hedren should also be remembered for producing a film that required her to live alongside wild lions for the better part of a decade. Although all but forgotten these days (though it's about to get a re-release), Roar was relatively notorious for being a monumental flop at the box office—but it's easily one of the most insane films you'll ever see.

Produced by Hedren and her then-husband/thoroughly inept writer-director Noel Marshall, and starring all of their kids (including a young Melanie Griffith), Roar is a virtually plotless mish-mash of barely-connected sequences in which the filmmakers frolic, romp, and wrestle with a wild menagerie of lions and tigers and elephants. (Oh my.) Despite some beautiful cinematography, Roar frequently feels like a horror film that thinks it's a family film. The combination of good intentions, (mostly) bad filmmaking, and outrageously misguided tenacity make Roar one of cinema's most WTF!-worthy films.

6. Slugs (1988)

In the annals of Spanish cinema history, Jean Piquer Simón is a true original, as evidenced by this wildly unpredictable tale of garden slugs who suddenly turn homicidal. Of course it would be absurd to spin this type of yarn with a straight face, and Slugs does not disappoint in the over-the-top department.

Not only does the film offer the obvious threat—that being "slugs that eat people"—but it also features some truly disgusting moments involving slug salads, exploding heads, and all sorts of random carnage that has no logical place in this type of movie, but sure is fun to witness all the same. 

7. Man's Best Friend (1993)

Written and directed by John Lafia (Child's Play 2) and starring Ally Sheedy, Lance Henriksen, and a genetically-modified Tibetan Mastiff, Man's Best Friend plays a little bit like 1986's Short Circuit (which also starred Sheedy), only instead of a sweet-natured robot with a crush, the plot centers on a super-smart, super-strong, and frequently ferocious mega-dog who escapes from a lab, befriends a nice woman, and quickly starts eating people left and right.

The humor stems from a clever skewering of dog-related clichés and a slyly satirical tone that pops up in between moments of canine-related carnage. Man's Best Friend might not be the best killer dog movie you'll come across, but it might just be the most (intentionally) amusing.

8. Willard (2003)

Film buffs love to scream about how remakes are always inferior to the original film. Until you mention something great like The Fly (1986) or something good like Glen Morgan's stylishly nasty reboot of the (not very good) 1971 rat-laden Willard. Then they'll concede that, OK, sometimes remakes aren't all that bad.

What is it that elevates Willard beyond the trappings of a typical remake? Its dark sense of humor, fantastic Shirley Walker musical score, some nifty rodent-related visual effects, a supremely villainous R. Lee Ermey, and (of course) an admirably weird—but also sort of touching—performance from the patently unique Crispin Glover. The 1970s were rife with "misfit strikes back" horror movies (the original Willard even predates Carrie, which is sort of the template for this type of horror tale), but this unexpectedly clever remake adds a welcome dash of dark humor, which makes the admittedly bizarre premise feel just a little more accessible.

9. Black Sheep (2006)

Now here's a perfect example of a movie that strikes a balance between horror and humor: obviously it'd be impossible to make a "serious" movie about man-eating sheep, but that doesn't mean you have to deliver something overtly broad, stupid, or sloppily made. In fact, the New Zealand import known as Black Sheep was impressive enough to earn itself a spot in the Toronto Film Festival's prestigious "Midnight Madness" slate.

Writer-director Jonathan King strikes a great balance between character-based humor, sheep-related lunacy, and enough over-the-top gore to keep any horror fan appeased, but what works best about Black Sheep is its self-mocking tone and energetic presentation. It's all very silly, of course, but it's also very well made, and it stands as a great example of how to go broad, silly, and even ridiculous—without skimping on quality or treating viewers like imbeciles.

10. Big Ass Spider! (2013)

Although frequently (and erroneously) lumped in with junk-drawer movies like Mega Shark and Dinocroc, this low-budget, high-energy giant spider romp is actually an admirably on-point homage to a sub-genre that spawned The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), and the still-fantastic Arachnophobia (1990). (If you haven't seen Arachnophobia, queue that one up immediately.) And feel free to toss Eight Legged Freaks (2002) onto the list as well.

Although obviously broad and frequently silly, Big Ass Spider! is also a B-movie in which a surprisingly witty cast tries to save Los Angeles from—you guessed it—a big ass spider invasion. And while it certainly shows a few budgetary constraints and typical low-budget glitches, Big Ass Spider! still earns a lot of points for asking the audience to laugh with its goofy antics, but never at them. Which is the main the difference between low-rent pop culture "product" and an actual "movie." (Also, the spider FX are really cool.)

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12 Surprising Facts About Bela Lugosi
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On October 20, 1882—135 years ago today—one of the world's most gifted performers was born. In his heyday, Bela Lugosi was hailed as the undisputed king of horror. Eighty-five years after he first donned a vampire’s cape, Lugosi's take on Count Dracula is still widely hailed as the definitive portrayal of the legendary fiend. But who was the man behind the monster?

1. HE WORKED WITH THE NATIONAL THEATER OF HUNGARY.

To the chagrin of his biographers, the details concerning Bela Lugosi’s youth have been clouded in mystery. (In a 1929 interview, he straight-up admitted “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”) That said, we do know that he was born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugoj, Hungary (now part of Romania). We also know that his professional stage debut came at some point in either 1901 or 1902. By 1903, Lugosi had begun to find steady work with traveling theater companies, through which he took part in operas, operettas, and stage plays. In 1913, Lugosi caught a major break when the most prestigious performing arts venue in his native country—the Budapest-based National Theater of Hungary—cast him in no less than 34 shows. Most of the characters that he played there were small Shakespearean roles such as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Sir Walter Herbert in Richard III.

2. HE FOUGHT IN WORLD WAR I.

The so-called war to end all wars put Lugosi’s dramatic aspirations on hold. Although being a member of the National Theater exempted him from military service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. Over the next year and a half, he fought against Russian forces as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While serving in the Carpathian mountains, Lugosi was wounded on three separate occasions. Upon healing from his injuries, he left the armed forces in 1916 and gratefully resumed his work with the National Theater.

3. WHEN HE MADE HIS BROADWAY DEBUT, LUGOSI BARELY KNEW ANY ENGLISH.

In December 1920, Lugosi boarded a cargo boat and emigrated to the United States. Two years later, audiences on the Great White Way got their first look at this charismatic stage veteran. Lugosi was cast as Fernando—a suave, Latin lover—in the 1922 Broadway stage play The Red Poppy. At the time, his grasp of the English language was practically nonexistent. Undaunted, Lugosi went over all of his lines with a tutor. Although he couldn’t comprehend their meaning, the actor managed to memorize and phonetically reproduce every single syllable that he was supposed to deliver on stage.

4. UNIVERSAL DIDN’T WANT TO CAST HIM AS COUNT DRACULA.

The year 1927 saw Bela Lugosi sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime. A play based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker had opened in London in 1924. Sensing its potential, Horace Liveright, an American producer, decided to create an U.S. version of the show. Over the summer of 1927, Lugosi was cast as the blood-sucking Count Dracula. For him, the part represented a real challenge. In Lugosi’s own words, “It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success.” It certainly was. Enhanced by his presence, the American Dracula remained on Broadway for a full year, then spent two years touring the country.

Impressed by its box office prowess, Universal decided to adapt the show into a major motion picture in 1930. Horror fans might be surprised to learn that when the studio began the process of casting this movie’s vampiric villain, Lugosi was not their first choice. At the time, Lugosi was still a relative unknown, which made director Tod Browning more than a little hesitant to offer him the job. A number of established actors were all considered before the man who’d played Dracula on Broadway was tapped to immortalize his biting performance on film.

5. MOST OF HIS DRACULA-RELATED FAN MAIL CAME FROM WOMEN.

The recent Twilight phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Lugosi estimated that, while he was playing the Count on Broadway, more than 97 percent of the fan letters he received were penned by female admirers. A 1932 Universal press book quotes him as saying, “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women.” Moreover, Lugosi contended that most of the men who’d attended his show had merely been dragged there by female companions.   

6. HE TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER.

Released in 1931, Dracula quickly became one of the year's biggest hits for Universal (some film historians even argue that the movie single-handedly rescued the ailing studio from bankruptcy). Furthermore, its astronomical success transformed Lugosi into a household name for the first time in his career. Regrettably for him, though, he’d soon miss the chance to star in another smash. Pleased by Dracula’s box office showing, Universal green-lit a new cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi seemed like the natural choice to play the monster, but because the poor brute had few lines and would be caked in layers of thick makeup, the actor rejected the job offer. As far as Lugosi was concerned, the character was better suited for some “half-wit extra” than a serious actor. Once the superstar tossed Frankenstein aside, the part was given to a little-known actor named Boris Karloff.

Moviegoers eventually did get to see Lugosi play the bolt-necked corpse in the 1943 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. According to some sources, he strongly detested the guttural scream that the script forced him to emit at regular intervals. “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!” Lugosi allegedly complained.

7. LUGOSI’S RELATIONSHIP WITH BORIS KARLOFF WAS MORE CORDIAL THAN IT’S USUALLY MADE OUT TO BE.

It’s often reported that the two horror icons were embittered rivals. In reality, however, Karloff and Lugosi seemed to have harbored some mutual respect—and perhaps even affection for one another. The dynamic duo co-starred in five films together, the first of which was 1934’s The Black Cat; Karloff claimed that, on set, Lugosi was “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” During one of their later collaborations, Lugosi told the press “we laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as Frankenstein is concerned.”

That being said, Lugosi probably didn’t appreciate the fact that in every single film which featured both actors, Karloff got top billing. Also, he once privately remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”

8. HE LOVED SOCCER.

In 1935, Lugosi was named Honorary President of the Los Angeles Soccer League. An avid fan, he was regularly seen at Loyola Stadium, where he’d occasionally kick off the first ball during games held there. Also, on top of donating funds to certain Hungarian teams, Lugosi helped finance the Los Angeles Magyar soccer club. When the team won a state championship in 1935, one newspaper wrote that the players were “headed back to Dracula’s castle with the state cup.” [PDF]

9. HE WAS A HARDCORE STAMP COLLECTOR.

Lugosi's fourth wife, Lillian Arch, claimed that Lugosi maintained a collection of more than 150,000 stamps. Once, on a 1944 trip to Boston, he told the press that he intended to visit all 18 of the city's resident philately dealers. “Stamp collecting,” Lugosi declared, “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss. Sometimes, you can even make money.” Fittingly enough, the image of Lugosi’s iconic Dracula appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1997.

10. LUGOSI ALMOST DIDN’T APPEAR IN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN—BECAUSE THE STUDIO THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD.

The role of Count Dracula in this 1948 blockbuster was nearly given to Ian Keith—who was considered for the same role in the 1931 Dracula movie. Being a good sport, Lugosi helped promote the horror-comedy by making a special guest appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show. While playing himself in one memorable sketch, the famed actor claimed to eat rattlesnake burgers for dinner and “shrouded wheat” for breakfast.

11. A CHIROPRACTOR FILLED IN FOR HIM IN PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Toward the end of his life, Lugosi worked on three ultra-low-budget science fiction pictures with Ed Wood, a man who’s been posthumously embraced as the worst director of all time. In the 1953 transvestite picture Glen or Glenda?, Lugosi plays a cryptic narrator who offers such random and unsolicited bits of advice as “Beware of the big, green dragon who sits on your doorstep.” Then came 1955’s Bride of the Monster, in which Lugosi played a mad scientist who ends up doing battle with a (suspiciously limp) giant octopus.

Before long, Wood had cooked up around half a dozen concepts for new films, all starring Lugosi. At some point in the spring of 1956, the director shot some quick footage of the actor wandering around a suburban neighborhood, clad in a baggy cloak. This proved to be the last time that the star would ever appear on film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956;  he was 73 years old.

Three years after Lugosi's passing, this footage was spliced into a cult classic that Wood came to regard as his “pride and joy.” Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the twisted tale of extraterrestrial environmentalists who turn newly-deceased human beings into murderous zombies. Since Lugosi could obviously no longer play his character, Wood hired a stand-in for some additional scenes. Unfortunately, the man who was given this job—California chiropractor Tom Mason—was several inches taller than Lugosi. In an attempt to hide the height difference, Wood instructed Mason to constantly hunch over. Also, Mason always kept his face hidden behind a cloak.

12. HE WAS BURIED IN HIS DRACULA CAPE.

Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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