Digging up the Marrow: Where Are All the New, Creative Monsters in Horror?

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One of the many joys of being a parent, an aunt, or an uncle is passing on your biggest fandoms. For those who love horror, it’s all about that day when you’re finally able to show your son, daughter, niece, or nephew the movies that both scared you silly and inspired your lifelong passion for horror as youngsters. More often than not, it’ll be films like Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Wolf Man, and The Blob

What all of those films have in common is the convergence of fantasy into reality—though their genre merits are legend and their scares are legit, they’re gateway horror movies. Everything in The Creature from the Black Lagoon, for example, is real except for the scaly humanoid that lives beneath the water. The titular Creature is the quintessential movie monster: something that’s inhuman, nightmarish-looking, but also sympathetic enough to tap into even the oldest viewer’s inner tyke. After all, the fish-like ghoul just wants to love the stunning Julia Adams. That’s much easier for kids to embrace than, say, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Shining, or The Exorcist, all of which are cerebral and, let’s face it, far less pleasant than any made-up boogeymen establishing residence in children’s closets.

But where’s the new Creature from the Black Lagoon? The sad truth is, kids aren’t currently able to experience that similar kind of monster discovery on their own. They’re growing up in a climate where horror cinema seems to have forgotten all about ingenuity for the unrealistic. As they get older, today’s budding horror consumers will rush off to multiplexes to watch, bless their poor souls, the rebooted Universal Monsters moonlighting as wannabe Marvel action heroes, or “Poltergeist 2: The Other Version’s Unnecessary Sequel,” or “Found-Footage Possession Movie No. 75.” You have to feel for them—they’ve been helplessly born into a time period where studio horror’s stuck in a deep rut filled with one familiar trope after another. Even the good examples of modern monster flicks are déjà vu generators. Last year’s Godzilla was a winner, but it’s still another Godzilla, while Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s strong werewolf film Late Phases is simply that, a strong werewolf film, not a film that does anything new with the lyncathrope sub-genre. With its undeniably gnarly practical effects, Bogliano’s film is indebted to An American Werewolf in London rather than being an bold extension of John Landis’ 1981 classic.

Don’t sign the modern movie monster’s “R.I.P. Creativity” death certificate just yet, however. This weekend, Hatchet franchise mastermind Adam Green returns with his latest film, Digging Up the Marrow, a faux documentary that’s fully embedded in the love of the progressive monster culture. Green stars as himself and tracks down a man named William Dekker (played by Ray Wise), a possibly delusional elder who claims to have seen real-life monsters and know where they all reside: inside an underground world he dubs “the Marrow,” and whose entrance lies in a desolate cemetery on the outskirts of Southern California. Being that Digging Up the Marrow is a horror movie, of course, Green does eventually meet some of these monsters, and—all designed by acclaimed artist Alex Pardee—they’re altogether grotesque and, most importantly, wholly original. There’s “Vance,” a hulking humanoid whose facial-covering sack also hides multiple appendages and deformities; Brella, an alluring beast with a woman’s physique and a large umbrella concealing its hideous head; and “Chicken,” a little bugger that skirts across the ground and combines the features of a spider and the headliner in Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case.

There’s just something so enjoyably invigorating about Marrow’s monsters. “It’s just a matter of keeping the imagination alive,” says Pardee. “Whenever I see something new, I always say to myself, ‘Wow, if that looks like this, maybe there’s something else out there that looks like that!’ But that’s not generally other people’s approach. Whenever somebody decides to remake something like The Fly again or redo The Mummy, why not just think about it a little more and put even a slight creative spin on it? That way, you can make it a whole new thing, which can then evolve. It’s all about evolution—we wouldn’t have the monsters we have now if it weren’t for the monsters that were created originally.”

Digging Up the Marrow’s monsters all come directly from Pardee’s terrifically warped mind, itself the product of what came before. The Cali native’s love for all things monstrous stems back to the night when, as a 13-year-old, he snuck downstairs to infiltrate his older sister’s slumber party while they watched Poltergeist and Creepshow on VHS, which then led to his father buying him back issues of EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt. Those influences inform Marrow’s wild ones. “I’ve always been fascinated with shapes and breaking down those shapes into silhouettes I’ve never seen before,” says Pardee. “That goes as far back as grade school, when I was more attracted to a deflated ball rather than inflated ball. Whenever I’m doing art or design work, it’s a matter of sketching different shapes and then filling in those shapes. While I’m scribbling, something will click and I’ll say, ‘Okay, this needs to have something spider-ish,’ and I’ll start pulling in inspirations around that.”

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That playfulness is felt throughout Digging Up the Marrow. Green’s self-made and self-financed passion project is just as much of a pro-monster celebration as Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, which Pardee cites as a direct inspiration. Like Cabin, Digging Up the Marrow reminds horror fans that, yes, they did once bask in the wonders of frightening aberrations that they’d never seen before. It’s a love letter to the days of Rick Baker and Stan Winston, a ride back to the 1980s and the magic of seeing nearly indescribable, what-the-hell-is-that creations like Ghoulies and Pumpkinhead, or the joys of reading stories by H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker for the first time. Although it’s played more for laughs than white-knuckle scares, Digging Up the Marrow’s DNA is the essence of old-school horror. “[Marrow] is the type of movie that a studio would never make now,” says Green. “They’d never make something with original monsters anymore, which is a shame.”

Green’s affinity for conceiving original monsters isn’t new—his career has been defined by that characteristic. Aside from its throwback slasher roots, the first Hatchet movie is engrained with the same kind of freshness as Digging Up the Marrow. Its antagonist, Victor Crowley, is a disfigured supernatural brute that’s equal parts Frankenstein’s monster and a ghostly riff on Madman’s Madman Marz. “Victor Crowley is a very sympathetic character,” explains Green. “He didn’t ask to become a killer; it’s a tragic situation that he was born this way, and now he’s a ghost who died tragically and is lashing out. Because of that, Hatchet gave me faith that there were other horror fans like me who wanted a new monster.”

“In the ’80s we had so many of them,” continues Green, “but in the ’90s it became all teen whodunit things because Scream was so good and then studios produced so many knockoffs of it. When I created Hatchet in the 2000s, it was really my answer to the torture porn thing. I didn’t fall in love with the genre because I wanted to watch women get raped or strapped to a chair, tortured, and forced to beg for her life—that’s not a good time for me. I don’t believe in punishing the audience; you shouldn’t leave a movie and feel like your eyes just got raped. We just tried to bring the fun back, and people responded in ways we never anticipated. I don’t know if Marrow would have happened without the response Hatchet received.”

The film also would’ve never come to fruition if not for Green’s decision to steer clear of studios and high-profile distribution companies. Imagine a bigger-budget version of Digging Up the Marrow, as much of a pipe dream as that sounds—instead of Green’s film’s practical effects and monsters that can actually touch the human characters, you’d most likely get digital creatures that’d look dated as soon as 2016. As it stands, Marrow features handcrafted monsters that’ll look just as cool ten years from now as they do today.

That’s all by design. “As genre fans, I think we’re incredibly misunderstood by Hollywood,” says Green. “I don’t think they’ll ever really figure out what it is that we like. When you look at some of the biggest successes, they’re all independent movies. Of course, when you look at, say, The Exorcist, that was a studio movie, and how that ever happened, I’ll never know. But if you look at Halloween, Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, or even Saw, they’re all independent movies. A studio never would’ve understood those, but then once they performed, the studios then jump in and try to do their versions of it, but they don’t understand that we know when we’re looking at a cartoon, and that takes us out of it. We’d rather have practical effects.”

Green and Pardee are currently touring throughout the country with Digging Up the Marrow, pairing the film itself with a mini exhibit of Pardee’s original sketches and prints available for purchase. They’re on a two-man mission to promote their shared love of monsters, and, sadly, from a filmmaker’s perspective, they’re mostly alone in that. This year’s horror horizon looks great, with gems like It Follows and Unfriended nearing their debuts, but 2015 is barren in terms of its Creature from the Black Lagoon disciples. Digging Up the Marrow notwithstanding, monsters aren’t the premium. “Our genre is always reflecting the times,” says Green. “That’s why torture porn happened, and that’s why it was important; we were in an age when we were watching journalists get beheaded on TV, worrying that terrorism that could come home and that we weren’t invincible. Then you go back to Night of the Living Dead and the reactions to Vietnam. The genre is a mirror that shows you a different reality that’s even more terrifying, but it’s also been built on ingenuity, ideas, and pushing the envelope, down to all the great makeup effects artists we’ve had and all of the monsters that we loved as kids.”

And hopefully, this generation’s kids will somehow get to experience that for themselves. “An audience’s imagination should never be taken for granted,” says Green. “Horror can’t always be mean-spirited; it can’t always be fire-and-brimstone; it can’t always be sad. That’s why monsters are so important—they make you happy, they fuel the imagination, and they make you think. Why can’t fantasy be a part of reality? Maybe people would be a little bit happier.”

Matt Barone is a film-obsessed writer who, when he’s not contributing to outlets like Complex, The Dissolve, and Badass Digest, endlessly weighs in on all things horror on Twitter.

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Weekend: Nov. 15, 2018, Nov. 18, 2018

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