by Anders Runestad
Why do so many movie monsters attack so many small towns? The middle of the past century brought a treasure trove of these creature features to the screen. Several of them were low-budget, but they were frequently also about the unique problems of low population areas when monsters go on offense—and it’s not immediately clear as to why.
King Kong, after all, set the standard for creature attacks by swinging around on the Empire State Building. No matter how many prehistoric lizards or impossible robots get computer animated into life, there’s no monster image quite so iconic as the giant gorilla batting at biplanes far above an old New York City. The easy answer must of course be that King Kong was an outlier, for most monsters don’t pick on someone their own size. However much Kong manhandled Fay Wray, he at least played fairly enough to run amok in a major city (even if humanity brought him there). But in the grand scheme of movie monsters, most are not in Kong’s weight class. It takes a lot of special effects and logistical finesse for big city monsters, whereas it’s just less complicated to film in a less populated area, even with fewer resources. And what is easier to fabricate as a scale model, a highly populated city or a small town in the middle of nowhere?
And yet, there’s far more going on here than budgetary cleverness when movie creatures go after small places. Consider Godzilla, still starring onscreen to this day, and King Kong’s only true rival for iconic longevity. While known in his first movie for clobbering Tokyo, the big green radioactive dinosaur still had to work up to that level since, earlier in the story, he wreaks havoc on a village. Even more than Kong, Godzilla graduates from the bush leagues into the big time, later in the series becoming so mainstream that he’s arguably no longer the bad guy.
But the smalltown creature attack remains far more primal than that of celebrity monsters, and therefore far more common and filled with endless story potential. Consider how much higher the stakes are when there is no one around to help. Movie small towns have a sheriff and a deputy, maybe a crusty combat veteran, some hunters, and sometimes a research scientist (who teaches at the local college that is miles away), but mostly just average citizens. It takes a while to call in the National Guard or get the president to call in an airstrike once the local monster is out of control, and that is only after the know-it-all scientist endures an hour of disbelief from the locals. All that elapsed time adds up, and a highly motivated creature can cause all sorts of mayhem in the meantime.
So, movie small towns mean that you, the viewer, get to identify with someone onscreen who knows the awful truth, is ignored, and has few resources. In other words, the wide-open spaces become claustrophobic and the friendly circle of neighbors who all know each other can induce fear and paranoia. If film noir is the alienation of being alone in the middle of thousands of city dwellers, then smalltown creature features distill a more basic loneliness: the world is sometimes full of dangers and survival does not always seem assured. Those neighbors should be friendly simply as a matter of self-preservation, but they’re failing at their one job.
Part of the smalltown horror subgenre shows clear roots in the classic, foundational horror stories of the 19th Century. Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel is a rich guy with a castle, but preys on local villagers until he moves to England (and reveals himself to be a bit of a Bond villain with worldwide ambitions). Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher is not exactly haunted so much as morbid with a serious structural flaw, but it represents how all creepy house tales play on the fear of isolation. But castles are not part of the American experience, towns are generally not labeled as villages, and Poe’s horror tales have a sometimes European sensibility. It is the small town that is ubiquitous in America from the late 19th Century on, and the United States’ own existential threats are therefore lurking behind the horror.
What are fantastic stories if not metaphors? Entertainment, certainly, but entertainment only hits home if it contains truth. And the human mind seems to crave metaphors as a delivery system for reality. Life in a small town had the usual problems of life anywhere, multiplied by geography. The green Midwestern plains and the red soil to the south have their tornadoes and floods, while challenging mountains dot the middle of the country all the way to the West Coast. Many small town dwellers faced not only the Depression, but the Dust Bowl and the reality that they could be snatched away to enforced military service. Life in the idyllic little places had plenty of anxiety to go around, so just as Godzilla is often seen as a metaphor for the effect of nuclear weapons on Japan, the recurring movie motif of creatures attacking towns represents an American reality.
Other cultures have expressed similar anxieties. Britain, for example, did an admirable job with their cycle of aliens invading quaint villages, from Village of the Damned and The Earth Dies Screaming, not to mention Jon Pertwee’s time as the third incarnation of TV’s Doctor Who (stuck on Earth with his time machine privileges revoked). But the American monster movies of the 1950s aren’t just horror tales, they are frontier stories. That is, many of them are, in their way, Westerns.
While The Giant Gila Monster and The Creeping Terror well represent movie sci-fi of the Eisenhower to Johnson years, they are also not so far from archetypes of the Old West. A monster shows up and disrupts the peace of a small town, just as some bad men disrupt what should be quiet times in My Darling Clementine and High Noon. In all the above, it takes the brave few to face down the threat and restore order. Or, with a little more budget and the involvement of Ray Bradbury, consider 1953’s It Came from Outer Space, where disappearing locals get a mob whipped up by the apparent threat of alien visitors. It’s a lighter film, yet one that peers into the same psychology as The Ox-Bow Incident, an unflinching look at vigilante behavior in an angry mob that won’t listen to reason.
A frontier is a frontier, whatever the scale, and America’s recent past was resonating in its classic monster movies. And while monsters may sometimes follow a familiar pattern of rise and fall—a successful monster is soon enough not much of a monster at all—it is back in the world of the small town where monsters can remain truly scary. If the people there are more open and direct, well, so is their fear.
Our blu-ray of The Giant Gila Monster releases on September 26, 2023.