Herpetology Horror Show: A Brief Exploration of Reptiles and Amphibians in Horror Films

Oct 29, 2016
The Reptile Report
by Editor in Chief

The Reptile Report - The following is a biology graduate paper written by Dustin Lee Nelson.

Abstract

Movies can inspire people to learn by exposing them to new subjects and draw out emotions, especially primitive fears. Horror films about animals can deeply tap into these feelings. Large or venomous reptiles receive special attention in the horror genre. These creatures often behave very differently in film than reality for the sake of telling a story, and are given antagonistic anthropomorphized motivations or unnatural physical abilities. Despite this trend, there is often a sincere effort to represent the animal’s true nature or abilities. This article explores several less known horror films starring reptiles to contrast the biology of these movie monsters with the real animals. A brief history of the use of reptiles in horror, film commentary, and discussion of the inspiration of some stories is included as well. This includes popular folklore and real incidents. Sometimes stories are written from misinterpretations of natural processes and can become highly memorable and entertaining. Reptiles (and some Amphibians) have been presented in many different ways in horror films and are a subgenre well worth further exploration.


Movies can inspire people to learn by exposing them to new subjects. Movies can also draw out emotions, especially primitive fears. Especially impactful at an early age, films can show people things that exist outside of reality or transport them to exotic locales. They showcase the full range of human emotions and anxieties. The horror genre exploits these anxieties and forces people to confront their primal fears about death and nature (Gregersdotter, Höglund, and Hållén 2015). Animal horror films thusly are a unique expression of our primal fear of nature making viewers question their perceived dominance over it and the anthropocentric worldview held by many people (Fuchs 2015, Milatovic 2015). The prospect of being eaten by an animal threatens our sense of control over our lives and shakes our perception that we are outside of nature (Fuchs 2015, Milatovic 2015).

In the early years of filmmaking, many low-rent dramas featured dinosaurs and other animals, but with the noteworthy exception of The Lost World (1925), nothing in particular stood out until the early 1930’s (Kinnard 1988). King Kong (1933) was the first widely successful animal horror film, thanks to its impressive stop motion effects and surprising brutality (Kinnard 1988). One of the first reptiles to appear in film, a fictional prehistoric lizard menaces Jack Driscoll as he hides from Kong (Kinnard 1988). Many reptiles make excellent subjects for horror films due to how unlike they are in appearance and demeanor from the mammals and birds humans have domesticated. Many of them also pose real danger to humans, especially in remote and less developed areas. Crocodilians and venomous snakes are responsible for numerous deaths worldwide every year, and are commonly seen movie monsters (Caldicott et. al. 2005). Lizards are more uncommon but have appeared in some worthwhile films. Turtles and amphibians are quite rare in horror because they rarely present a threat to humans in nature, though some exceptions exist. Despite these traits, many liberties are often taken with animal’s biological capabilities for sake of drama or menace. It’s worth noting that many films claim their monsters are mutants or hybrids, which can aid suspension of disbelief, especially in some instances of subpar special effects.

There is an incredible abundance of films featuring reptiles as movie monsters, and while a comprehensive discussion is beyond the scope of plausibility, many films have several themes in common and animals are often typecast in how they are used as movie maniacs. This article aims to give a brief overview of how each group of reptiles is used in horror films while detailing some of the most realistic or noteworthy films in each category. These short essays explore the (in)accuracy of these films with an emphasis on behavior and appearance and offer light film criticism. Dinosaurs were excluded to focus on modern reptiles, as well as their affiliation with birds. Crocodilians are our first group for examination.

 

Crocodilians:

Alligators are popular in American horror films due to their familiarity in American culture, and appear in several low-budget, generally poorly executed horror films; perhaps the most absurd of which is the “were-alligator”-themed Ragin Cajun Redneck Gators (2013). However, one film in particular stands out as a well-executed traditional monster movie:

Alligator (1980)

The American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is unsurprisingly the subject of this 1980 cult classic. Based on the popular alligators-in-the-sewers urban legend, an early draft of this film took place in Milwaukee; in which an alligator flushed into the sewer grows into a giant by consuming brewery waste (Sayles 2007). The finished film follows the basic legend, a pet American Alligator is flushed down the toilet and survives to adulthood. In this instance, illegal dumping of laboratory animals in the sewer provides it with a steady food source and exposes it to experimental growth hormones, mutating it into a rampaging monster.

Officially, New York is the favored setting of the Alligator legend, with some dubious basis in fact (Coleman 1979). A 1935 article in the New York Times describes how a sickly and sluggish 8-foot, 125 lb. alligator was pulled from a manhole on February 9th (New York Times 1935, Coleman 1979). Interestingly, the writer of that article appears to not have directly witnessed this, and even in poor condition an 8’ alligator would likely be substantially heavier, implying a hoax (Pajerski et. al. 2000). This aside, alligators do occasionally appear in sewers and storm drains within their normal range in the southern US. One such story from ABC News in Florida shows an alligator lurking in a storm drain (ABC news 2014). After Hurricane Katrina, a camera probe assessing the damage encountered an alligator in a sewer pipe, most likely driven there by the storm. These incidents are one-off events rather than evidence of established populations as in the legend. While rats and insects are possibly abundant food sources in a sewer, pollution and lack of sunlight are likely an insurmountable obstacle to alligator colonization.

The legend often claims that “sewer gator” populations express a variety of mutations such as albinism, multiple heads, and giant size (Blackman 1998). The legend itself has deeper meaning about how careless mistakes come back to bite us, especially in regards to nature, and social significance in that discarded members of society rise in cycles of revenge and revolution (Mann 2015). This theme was intentionally written into the movie; the alligator attacks people with increasingly higher social status, culminating with the chemist who created the growth hormone responsible for its mutation, the CEO of the pharmaceutical company and their accomplice the Mayor (Sayles 2007, Mann 2015). After this rampage, the creature returns to the sewers and is defeated with dynamite, but the final scene shows the arrival of a new hatchling into the sewer to begin the cycle again.

Despite the implausible premise, the behavior and morphology of the titular creature is somewhat consistent with reality. The enormous rubber puppet looks fairly good in most scenes and is recognizable specifically as an alligator. Real alligators are used in multiple shots on miniature sets and close ups, granting some obvious inconsistencies since the animatronic beast doesn’t proportionally match the much smaller animals. As in many reptile horror films, this alligator is impossibly large for his species, claimed to be 35’ long from huge footprints found after it escapes the sewer. Most real reports claim a maximum of 15’, with a dubious record of 19’ (LAAC). This alligator is comparable to prehistoric beast Deinosuchus, an enormous extinct crocodilian (Farlow et. al. 2005). They are from the same clade and were likely quite visually similar, so much so that estimates of Deinosuchus’ size was calculated from the bone proportions of the modern alligator (Farlow et. al. 2005).

Deliberately preying on humans aside, many of the creature’s behaviors are true to life. The alligator’s lair is located close to its main food source, underneath the lab animal dumping ground. Alligators claim territories where they can find abundant food sources and as demonstrated by the film will stash prey for later consumption (Pajerski et. al. 2000). Alligators employ ambush tactics and rely on catching prey off guard, which was used to great effect in the film (Pajerski et. al. 2000). A sudden burst of speed is used to seize prey, but scenes where the creature gives prolonged chase for dramatic effect are less believable because it would either quickly overtake prey or abandon the chase (Pajerski et. al. 2000). Real alligators prefer to feed underwater, but this is largely disregarded by the film for sake of horror (Pajerski et. al. 2000). This alligator is extremely aggressive and unnaturally powerful: it escapes the sewers by ramming its way through a sidewalk, and crushes a car with its tail. In the climax at the CEO’s mansion, it attacks a wedding party in broad daylight and kills several people but doesn’t eat any of them. Real alligators are very vocal, but don’t produce the kind of “monster roar” frequently heard in the film (Pajerski et. al. 2000).

The Alligator hides in a swimming pool at one point. How it managed to fit demonstrates the inconsistency of the creatures’ size, a common flaw in monster films. Crocodilians can turn up in swimming pools within their ranges, and this could plausibly result in fatalities as seen in the film. In the real world, a 7-foot alligator can present a danger to humans with much larger animals usually behind attacks (Caldicott et. al. 2005). Real attacks are generally opportunistic rather than deliberate, and compared to other crocodilians the American Alligator is rather benign. A fairly inferior sequel was released over a decade later, Alligator II: The Mutation (1991). It is basically the same movie without any of the deeper themes, sanitized violence, and a far more lighthearted tone.

Crocodiles are featured more prominently as movie monsters than alligators due to their worldwide distribution.   This is reflected by frequent use in cleverly-titled foreign films such as the Italian Import Killer Crocodile (1989). Nile Crocodiles (Crocodylus Niloticus) are responsible for a majority of worldwide fatalities (Caldicott et. al. 2005). Despite frankly being a terrible film, Primeval (2007) is noteworthy because of its inspiration, a large Nile Crocodile responsible for several fatalities in waterways around Lake Tanganyika in Burundi (McRae 2005, PBS 2004). Nicknamed “Gustave” by a local naturalist, this crocodile is supposedly responsible for over 300 deaths (McRae 2005, PBS 2004). This number is almost certainly exaggerated. Namely, Gustave is recognizable for his great size and some distinctive markings. Best estimates place him at over 19’ while the average Male C. Niloticus is around 15’ (McRae 2005, PBS 2004). As a known man-eater the creature has been subject to a handful of failed extermination attempts and bears distinctive scars on his head and side from gunfire (McRae 2005, PBS 2004). A failed attempt to capture Gustave was mounted in 2004 and the plot loosely incorporates elements of the expedition (McRae 2005, PBS 2004). The most noteworthy commonality was the use of a large baited cage, which failed to catch the beast in both scenarios (PBS 2004). The real crocodile hasn’t been sighted for a while, leading to speculation its death (McRae 2008). There’s much more to discuss about crocodilians in horror films, but it’s time to explore another category.

 

Snakes:

Snakes are probably the most popular reptiles in horror after crocodilians, yet there seems to be surprisingly little discussion of them in film literature. Snake horror films tend to fall into two categories:  giant snakes and venomous snakes.  There is quite a bit of interplay between the two. In films like Python (2000) for example, the 129-foot snake can also spit acid, seemingly for no reason beyond a desire to include dissolving corpses in the film. Conversely, King Cobra (1999) features a very phony looking 30’ king cobra/rattlesnake “hybrid”. The original Anaconda (1997) is the only giant snake movie with any semblance of reality. These anacondas have appropriate body markings, but they differ greatly in behavior and are much too long. They loudly vocalize and actively hunt humans; real snakes cannot shriek as seen in the film nor do many (if any) reach the size required to swallow an adult human. Practically all giant snake movies fail to account for the bulk that such an enormous animal would have. The CGI creatures used by most films definitely compound the issue, making the snakes quite obviously fake. Anacondas (Eunectes murinus) in particular are very bulky and are mainly aquatic to support their weight (Milord 2012). Titanoboa, a huge prehistoric snake, is estimated to reach lengths of 48 feet or more and from where its fossils have been found were likely similar in lifestyle to modern anacondas (Kemp 2012). Giant snakes are shown moving and striking with the speed of vipers, not exactly possible for an animal as massive as something like Titanoboa. Venomous snakes deliberately targeting humans compose the second category. The potency of snake venom is often exaggerated in films such as Jaws of Satan (1982). The King Cobra (Ophiophagus Hannah) does have highly potent neurotoxic venom capable of quickly killing an adult human (Young 1999). Yet in this movie cobra venom causes instant death and necrosis in its victims (augmentation via satanic curses is assumed to play a role in this).

The most realistic venomous snake film by a wide margin is likely Venom (1981), a British film featuring a Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis). More of a crime thriller than a horror film, the plot centers around a botched kidnapping escalating into a hostage situation with a snake on the loose. A mix-up at the pet shop causes a wealthy child’s new exotic pet to be switched with a mamba that is ordered by the London Institute of Toxicology. This is discovered during the abduction attempt when one of the criminals opens the box and is immediately bitten. A few mishaps later, the surviving villains have taken the boy and his grandfather hostage. A standoff with the police ensues while the snake menacingly slinks about the house. A real Mamba was used under the supervision of staff from the London Zoo, so the creature is certainly authentic. It spent much of its time hiding but was very aggressive when encountered. As seen in the film, mambas strike repeatedly when they feel threatened (Schott 2005). Death can result quickly from a mamba bite, though not quite as quickly as seen in Venom (Schott 2005). It does have the classic monster movie ending. After the snake is destroyed the last shot reveals eggs hatching in the manor’s air ducts. Snakes’ closest relatives, the lizards, also find adequate exposure in horror films.

 

Lizards:

Komodo (1999)

Another reptile that fits well into a movie monster role is the Komodo Dragon, a large Varanid lizard capable of reaching lengths of 10 feet (Lawwell 2006). Surprisingly underrepresented, only one film attempts to realistically portray these creatures, Komodo (1999). Though it commits the standard transgression of oversizing its creatures, it is much less egregious than most, depicting the creatures as only a few feet larger than the recognized maximum (except for the finale, where the last dragon appears to be the size of a helicopter). The film also makes a plot device of the creature’s toxic saliva, which is loaded with bacteria and venom. However, the film predates the discovery that Komodo Dragons have venom and makes no mention of it (Lawwell 2006). The relationship between the venom and bacteria is not fully understood, but the function is basically as depicted in the film (Lawwell 2006). Dragons will strike prey to infect or envenomate. Then they release it and wait for the prey to be weakened before finishing it off (Lawwell 2006). The dragons are shown feeding in groups as it occurs in nature and barring some incidents of bad CGI look quite realistic (Lawwell 2006). Although attacks on humans are known to occur, they are quite rare unlike the deliberate hunting of humans shown here (Associated Press). The film is set on an island in North Carolina. An animal smuggler throws away a batch of dragon eggs, and they manage to establish a population. After many years, the dragons have exhausted their food supply and resort to humans for food. After several deaths, the dragons are killed, and the surviving humans escape the island. While widely considered a bad film, there are far worse movies out there. Other films feature Komodo Dragons and other lizards as oversized mutants, such as Curse of the Komodo (2004) and the creatively titled The Giant Gila Monster (1959) but one obscure film takes this mutant lizard concept exceptionally far.

Aberration (1997)

The mutant lizards of Aberration (1997) showcase many of the morphological features of reptiles that make them appealing movie monsters. The creatures are venomous and highly adaptable, quickly developing resistance to pesticides, bullets, and fire (in that order). On some level they could represent anxieties about the unpredictable power of nature. As one character points out, they appear to evolve with the speed of a virus. The American public in particular has a poor understanding of evolution, and Aberration appropriates the concept to tell an unexpectedly good and tense story. It takes place in Northern Minnesota during the onset of winter. The film opens with a wildlife biologist wandering through the woods and collecting samples of a strange substance, while another character moves into her long abandoned family cabin nearby. She soon discovers she has a pest problem and meets the biologist while shopping for pesticides. We find out that he has been investigating the sudden disappearance of local wildlife, and he agrees to check out her pest problem.

It turns out the cabin is infested with the mutant lizards, which progressively become more dangerous. They spray one with pesticide and dissect it, describing it as having “the feet of a gecko and body of an iguana”. The rubber lizards are fairly generic, so it is difficult to tell how accurate this description really is. They find it has large teeth for a lizard and fangs, proclaiming “it’s a viperid!”. A winter storm combined with car trouble traps them in the cabin. The rest of the film details their attempts to escape and wipe out the suddenly anthropophagous lizards, which rapidly develop an immunity to pesticide, bulletproof skin, and other features. They attempt to drown one in a fish tank and newt-like gill slits open on its neck. Another lizard spits blinding venom in someone’s eyes at one point, and they seem to steadily grow larger. Their eggs are somewhat amphibian-like, adhered to surfaces with a viscous substance. The lizards are also shown vocalizing with each other to coordinate their attacks. Tail autotomy and retractable spines are used in some scenes for comedic effect. However, they’re still intolerant of cold like most ectotherms. Their claws, teeth, venom, and unpredictability make them effective movie monsters. Their ability to sprout gills is the only connection to newts and salamanders in monster movies this author is aware of. Amphibians are rare in in the genre, probably because of their small stature and minimal (if any) threat posed to humans. However, one film finds an interesting way to feature them as menacing antagonists.

 

Amphibians:

Frogs (1972)

The 1972 eco-horror film Frogs is revered as a cult classic for its nonsensical plot and low production quality. Ironically containing very few frogs, nearly all amphibians shown are toads. The theme of many 1970s-era eco-horror films is nature rising up against mankind (Schell 2015). In this case all the animals have banded together to purge humanity from an island plantation owned by the wealthy Crockett family. Much emphasis is placed on the Crockett’s involvement with industry and role in ecological destruction. One character complains about anti-pollution laws increasing costs at her paper mill and grandfather Crockett has been trying to kill off the “noisy” frogs by spraying massive amounts of pesticide on the island. The other Crocketts are similarly disrespectful of nature and meet spectacularly impossible deaths at the hands of the local fauna (one review described it as “the attack of nature attacks!”).

One character asphyxiates on toxic fumes in a greenhouse when lizards trap him inside and break several pesticide containers. There’s some clear symbolism in this as the animals poison the polluter (Schell 2015). In another implausible moment, one character gets stuck in mud and is menacingly approached by a snapping turtle. Soon after, her body is seen floating face-down with the turtle sitting atop it and hissing menacingly. The “frogs” are seemingly leading the other animals; each killing is accompanied by close up shots of frogs watching the mayhem. The woman with the paper mill is lured into the swamp by butterflies and killed by venomous snakes. When someone goes looking for her he’s ambushed by alligators (normal-sized ones). Eventually the least offensive Crocketts and a visiting naturalist escape the island while the curmudgeonly grandfather stays behind to brood in his hunting trophy appreciation room. That night the loudly croaking frogs besiege the mansion and try to break in. In a panic the old man begins to hear the cries of all the animals he’s killed echoing through the trophy room. Overwhelmed, he appears to die from fright as the frogs’ crash through the windows and jump all over him. The croaking drowns out all other sounds as the lights in the mansion almost supernaturally go out, though the frogs may have learned how to cut the power at this point given the way the film handles them.

The creatures look great because they’re almost all live animals as in Venom (1981), the only issues with morphology were obvious misidentifications and a couple very out-of-place species. The story appears to be set in the Florida Everglades, but several species shown are not native to that area; Tokay Geckos and Tegus to name a few (Schell 2015). The titular frogs appear to be a mixture of American and Marine toads, and the “venomous” snakes are recognizable as harmless species including corn snakes.

Obviously, animal behavior was wildly unnatural in the film. Brazen attacks on humans were carried out by lizards, snakes, alligators, spiders, frogs, and a snapping turtle. While not directly killing people, the “frogs” are strongly implied to have a leadership role in the island ecosystem, directing more dangerous fauna to attack humans throughout the majority of the film, which does not occur in nature. Frogs are often interpreted as nonthreatening, and the theme of their role as prey shifting to predator is a symbolic indication of how warped the ecosystem has become from human activities (Schell 2015). As in films where humans become prey, human supremacy is challenged and ecological roles are reversed by the frogs’ ascendancy to the top (Schell 2015). Frogs are considered to have roles as tricksters with magical powers in many cultures, a possible connection to their depictions as hypnotic masterminds (Wanner). Toads in particular has long been associated with witchcraft, mystic powers, and poisons (Wanner). This mythological association with poison makes their leading role in nature’s revenge for pollution oddly appropriate (Schell 2015). Frogs still isn’t exactly a good film, but becomes much more interesting from this analytical perspective. Amphibians aren’t the only group underrepresented in horror however.

 

Where are the Horror Turtles?

Turtles appear quite rarely in horror for assumedly the same reason as frogs, they simply don’t pose much of a threat to humans. There are a handful of killer turtles, but nothing besides Frogs treats them with much realism. A vastly oversized Archelon, a prehistoric turtle, menaces primitive humans in One Million Years B.C. (1966). The Japanese giant monster genre has Gamera, an anthropomorphized Godzilla imitation that appears in several B-Films of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s before getting a gritty high-quality reboot trilogy in the mid-1990s. The Bermuda Depths (1978) is more of a bizarre romance story about a cursed woman in the sea. But in terms of strict horror, there’s really nothing out there with turtles.

 

Summation:

This is a sample of the immense body of content available in this rich subgenre of animal horror. Killer crocodiles and giant snakes will always have a home in these films at any production level, with several films typically coming out annually. This article could have easily been just about crocodiles in horror, especially in Australian cinema. Dark Age (1987) and Black Water (2008) are two great examples of interesting and suspenseful stories in the genre. “Trapped with snakes in a place” is an often used premise and some giant snake films have become ongoing series in addition to new films. On the occasions where lizards and other herps get to appear there is often an interesting concept being explored as in Aberration, or something oddly endearing like Frogs. The inspiration behind some of these films often has some cultural basis such as the connection to theology in Jaws of Satan, and would be an interesting perspective to explore the genre from. Although designed to frighten, these films can have the positive effect of inspiring a lasting interest in these animals, when Jaws (1975) was released, there was a surge in interest in shark research and oceanography (Stone 2012). Though reptile horror films haven’t had the major cultural impact of that film, perhaps they’ve had the same effect on some viewers on a smaller scale.

 

References:

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Alligator. Dir. Lewis Teague. Perf. Robert Forster, Robin Riker. Alligator Inc., 1980. DVD.

Alligator II: The Mutation. Dir. Jon Hess. Perf. Joseph Bologna, Dee Wallace, Richard Lynch. Golden Hawk Entertainment, 1991. DVD.

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Black Water. Dir. David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki. Perf. Diana Glenn, Maeve Dermody, Andy Rodoreda. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2008. DVD.

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Stone, Greg. “Why “Jaws” Made Me Care About Sharks.” Web log post. Human Nature Conservation International Blog. N.p., 15 Aug. 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2016. <http://blog.conservation.org/2012/08/why-jaws-made-me-care-about-sharks/>.

Titanoboa: Monster Snake. Dir. Martin Kemp. Smithsonian Channel, 2012. DVD.

Venom. Dir. Piers Haggard. Perf. Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Nicol Williamson. Blue Underground, 1981. DVD.

Wanner, Noel. “Frogs: Frog Myths Across Cultures | Exploratorium.” Frogs: Frog Myths Across Cultures | Exploratorium. Exploratorium, n.d. Web. 10 May 2016. <http://www.exploratorium.edu/frogs/folklore/>.

Young, Diana. “Ophiophagus Hannah (Hamadryad, King Cobra).” Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, 1999. Web. 25 Oct. 2016. <http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Ophiophagus_hannah/>.

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