Monster Mixtape: Attack the Block

It’s that time of the year again. There’s a slight chill to the late summer evenings. Leaves are starting to bring out their fall colors. Each day is just a bit shorter than the last. We can all feel what these changes signify. No, not going back to school, but that it’s the season for monster movies!

From the first time I saw Alligator when I was five—which was probably too young given the gore—I’ve been hooked on creature features. There’s nothing guilty about the pleasure. A, B, or Z grade, it’s fun to imagine what might be lurking in dark corners, at the bottom of the sea, or just beneath the soil. So in celebration of cinema’s great monsters and the special effects experts who brought them to life, between now and Halloween I’ll be highlighting ten of the best toothy, sharp-clawed, and mutated aberrations to shred the silver screen. Some are old classics, others are newcomers, but all are awesome.

Track 1: The Aliens from Attack the Block

“I don’t think those are eyes…” Let’s talk about the aliens from Attack the Block.

There’s no official name for the aliens that chase our young antiheros around Brixton in this 2011 scifi/horror spectacular. The closest we get is “gorilla-wolf mother[expletive deleted]s,” which is more or less accurate. The aliens, apparently blown off course while in the middle of an interstellar mating ritual, gambol about on all fours and are covered in strange, spiky fur that’s “blacker than black.” The only part of them that stands out is row upon row of bioluminescent teeth—flashing of glowing death against the dark.

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Although that’s just the most prominent, and deadly, form of the aliens. The one that gets the movie going looks, to paraphrase some of the film’s dumbfounded characters, like a stinky puppet. As a gang of teenage toughs—led by Moses (John Boyega, before the Force was with him)—mug a nurse on her way home to a block of flats in a rough part of south London, something crashes from the sky into a nearby car. Moses and the rest of his posse quickly find out that it’s a little, angry alien that looks something like an eyeless, shaved ape with a mouth brimming with vicious fangs.

The fact that the alien slashes Moses’ face open upon their introduction is a major faux pas, and, naturally, the teens bash it to death and take it to the most secure place they know—the weed room of the drug dealer who lives at the top of the block. That’s where this story with more than a touch of social commentary really gets loping along, and, eventually, part of what makes these monsters so great.

The roving bands of wolfish aliens aren’t mindless killers. (Woop! Woop! Spoiler alert ahead.) They’re less ravenous beasts than interstellar animals searching for their mate. As our protagonists figure out late in the film, unfortunately after a few of their gang get viciously chomped, the blood from the little alien carried some kind of scent or pheromone that drives the other sex of the species crazy. All they want is for the humans to get out of the way so they can go about continuing their species. There’s a biological reason for all the decapitations and face-eating, giving the aliens just enough complexity to stand out against other cinematic terrors from space.

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And for a low-budget monster, you can’t do better. Director Joe Cornish knew he couldn’t afford copious amounts of CGI to bring his nightmare to life, so, taking inspiration from some ravenous cinematic wolves and the way a black cat can look two-dimensional one moment and three dimensional the next, he hired Terry Notary to run around in what was basically a gorilla suit before production company Fido added a little polish to the practical effects later. The result is simple and perfect. Just as with H.R. Giger’s ALIEN design—which, surprise, I’ll be getting to eventually—the fact that the monsters lack any visible eyes make them more dangerous. You can’t always immediately tell what they’re paying attention to, what they want, or if they’ve spotted you. All the more terrifying when those shadows start to creep in.

Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus (out in paperback from Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Written in Stone. He also writes the National Geographic blog Laelaps.

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