Review: Deformed and Destructive Beings / Author: George Ochoa / Publisher: McFarland & Co / Release date: Out now
Two great books about movie monsters, published within a few months of each other: first, John Landis’s glossy and gorgeous Monsters in The Movies; now, George Ochoa’s lovingly researched and intelligently written Deformed and Destructive Beings. Like the Landis tome, Ochoa’s book grew out of the author’s boyhood love of monster movies, and starts with the notion that what audiences most want from a horror film is a truly memorable monster.
So what makes a great movie monster? Ochoa argues that monsters can be best understood as Deformed and Destructive Beings (DDBs) and that horror films satisfy the audience’s desire to know these beings, particularly those too fantastic and dangerous to know in real life. Think scientists who study the rare species of the natural world or children who hunt bugs in their gardens: we seem programmed to be fascinated by strange life forms. Ochoa traces this fascination to our primitive survival instinct: our desire to know strange beings - especially threatening ones - has enabled us to survive since the prehistoric age.
Ochoa defines a monster as a being that is ‘deformed’ either physically (Freddy Kruger), psychologically (Norman Bates) or spiritually (Dracula) in such a way that makes it destructive towards ‘normal’ human beings. The structure of a horror film is based on the full revelation of the monster to the audience in all its terrible deformity and destructiveness, so that we can ‘know’ it, do battle with it and hopefully defeat it.
If this sounds a bit high-brow - it’s not. Ochoa outlines his main ideas entertainingly in the first few pages and the rest of the book focuses on how DDB’s feature in horror films. There are in-depth discussions of the ‘effectively presented’ monsters of Orphan (2009), The Funhouse (1981) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and an analysis of The Fly II (1989) as an example of a ‘poor presentation’ of a movie monster – a conclusion that’s hard to dispute!
In the second part of the book, he looks at key monsters in the history of horror films like King Kong (1933), Dracula (1958), Alien (1979), the scary children in The Innocents (1961) and the marauding zombies in Re-Animator (1985); discusses different types of monster such as werewolves, aliens, mummies, zombies and vampires, and describes in detail the characteristics of each type. There’s even a category called ‘undead body parts’ (featuring Ash’s severed hand in Evil Dead 2).
In the final section Ochoa shows how the various components of film-making - sound effects, make-up, costumes, special effects, music, production design, editing and cinematography – come together to portray the monster, and discusses directors who have created memorable monsters in their films. There’re the usual suspects, of course: John Carpenter, Wes Craven, George Romero (all well-deserving) but some critically neglected auteurs also get a mention, like Hideo Nakata (for his ‘long tradition of religion and folklore in which ancestral spirits are omnipresent’) and Hammer maestro Terence Fisher. Mario Bava gets praise too for ‘his greatest special effect: the starkly beautiful Barbara Steele’ - hard to disagree with that!
Overall, George Ochoa has come up with a theory about the purpose of horror films that is fresh and original – as well as straightforward and convincingly argued. Can anyone think of a truly great horror film that doesn’t have a memorable monster at the heart of it?
Deformed and Destructive Beings is a lively and interesting read, and contains many rare film stills -taken from Ochoa’s own boyhood collection built up while attending dozens of horror film conventions in the 1970s. It’s the work of a lifelong horror movie fan, then.
Monster movie addicts like me will love it, and if you are a scriptwriter or author looking for pointers on how to write a truly memorable movie monster you will find this book extremely useful.