The Earth Dies Squirming: Behemoth (2011)
Posted August 24, 2013 by Denis K.
A US small town situated close to a mountain that was an active volcano ages ago is hit by a series of tremors and rather curious earth activities, while deadly CO2 starts leaking all around the mountain. Strangely, at the same time this mysterious activity starts up, various off-screen natural disasters hit places all around the world.
Retired professor William Walsh (William B. Davis) has found an explanation for the strange phenomena through his extensive study of myth, or rather myths. William thinks what’s happening has to do with the true base of various myths shared by cultures all around the world, myths in which a gigantic creature acts out the wrath of the Earth whenever humanity too actively disturbs the natural order; now, says William, the creature is waking up again.
Of course, William is mentally ill (probably schizophrenic, though the film doesn’t dare use the world in what I assume is an example of inexplicable US puritanism), and going off his meds, so neither his son Thomas (Ed Walsh), a lumberjack boss, nor his twenty year old daughter who acts like a teenager Grace (Cindy Busby) believe a single word he says. Too bad he’s right.
The seismic activities are so peculiar that Thomas’s former flame Emily Allington (Pascale Hutton), now a seismologist, returns to her hometown to find an explanation of her own, and convince her Sheriff uncle (Garry Chalk) of the danger of the situation, if need be.
The danger is, of course, even larger than she could have expected. Also as a matter of course, Emily, Thomas, Grace, and a mysterious government agent of the Department of Weird Shit (Ty Olsson) will end up on the mountain exactly when the tentacles really hit the fan, and William’s theories are proven quite beyond doubt.
The Internet disagrees with me here, but I truly think W.D. Hogan’s Behemoth is a particularly fine example of SyFy movie making. Certainly, it’s a film pushing a lot of my buttons with the way it mixes a basic SF horror idea right out of Weird Tales or Astounding in its more horrific moments with the highly localized global disaster movie style SyFy is so very fond of. It’s a great mixture, particularly because Hogan (and/or Rachelle S. Howie’s script) really does know how to sell the age-old clichés most of the film is built from as natural instead of annoying.
Plus, there’s a monster as big as a mountain with tentacles that is first partially revealed in a sequence where its very large eye peers angrily out of a hole in the mountain at our non-teenage teenage co-protagonist and her boyfriend, which is as perfect and resonant an image as one could hope to find anywhere. Once we get to see the monster completely, it also turns out to be one of the rather more creatively designed SyFy CGI creatures, again fully fitting into the traditions of certain old pulp magazines. The only disappointment when it comes to the monster is the rather lame way our heroes end up getting rid of it, even though this comes with a territory when you as a filmmaker aren’t allowed to let it eat the world and surely couldn’t afford the pyrotechnics anyhow.
Behemoth, despite being a film deftly made from clichés and well-worn tropes, also has some moments when it’s making small steps into directions you don’t expect. I was particularly surprised by the film’s treatment of William’s mental illness (even though it doesn’t dare name it – people could infect themselves with it, or something). There’s a believability and truthfulness about the way his environment reacts to William’s illness and what they believe to be just another expression of it in what must have been a long line of expressions. William’s family shows a mixture of sadness, exasperation and plain tiredness that isn’t just unexpectedly real for a SyFy monster movie but for movies in general. Even better, the film also allows its mentally ill character the same degree of dignity (one thing many mental illnesses don’t exactly leave you much of, while your environment generally does its damndest to take away the rest) it gives its other characters, and even provides him with an opportunity for small-scale heroism without feeling the need to kill him off for reasons of redemption.
William B. Davis uses the opportunity to for once in his life not play a bad guy, and provides William (the name-giving fairy was out, sorry) with just the right mixture of obsessiveness, fragility, and a warmth suggesting a complete human being.
In general, Behemoth is pretty good at breaking up its ultra-competent and highly entertaining giant monster/disaster tale with small moments of truth in the character department (not in the moments when everyone just has to act like an idiot for genre conventions, obviously). Apart from everything to do with William, there’s – just for example – the telling fact that the Sheriff doesn’t take what Emily tells him about a possible catastrophe seriously, despite her being an actual expert, because she’s just his niece, and surely she can’t know more about anything than he does, which seems to mirror the experience most younger women of my acquaintance have with their own families.
For me, these kinds of elements and small details often are what make or break a SyFy creature feature; it is of course important (and pretty much unavoidable) to work with and within clichés and tropes when making a low budget genre film for TV, but it’s these small things that differentiate a competent movie from one truly worth watching. Behemoth, for its part, clearly belongs to the latter group.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?
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