Horror is often the last thing most people think of when discussing Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. As a director, Spielberg has a reputation for shying away from that which is more dark and sinister, but this reputation isn’t entirely earned. Though not without its share of whimsy and wonder, Steven Spielberg still displays a real mean streak with Jurassic Park that recalls his earlier, rough around the edges movies, and puts the seminal 90s thriller amongst other titans of terror.
Crichton & Spielberg
The first thing to consider when classifying Jurassic Park as horror comes from its source material. Michael Crichton, acclaimed author of the book and co-writer of the film’s script, more often than not worked within the horror genre. The original Westworld, which Crichton both wrote and directed, served as the template for Jurassic Park. Both stories deal with an exotic resort/park with inadequate safety features, which inevitably implode and put the guests in danger. Westworld perfected many now standard horror tropes, such as the un-killable villain that became the staple of the slasher genre.
Crichton’s novel is much darker than Spielberg’s adaptation, taking an unflinching look at the violence and accumulating a much higher body count. Spielberg has been accused of diminishing the darkness of the novel, but while he does inject some of his trademark whimsy, he also creates a more streamlined, and in some ways more frightening tale.
Jaws & Duel
In spite of his reputation, Steven Spielberg can get mean. Spielberg began his career with two stellar horror movies. The first was the highly overlooked Duel, which told of a frantic motorist’s attempts to escape a maniac in a tanker truck. Much like Crichton with Westworld, Duel served as a prototype for Spielberg’s follow up. Jaws expands on the themes of Duel, turning the villain from a piece of technology and into nature itself. As with Duel, Spielberg shows a real sadistic streak in Jaws, going so far as to gruesomely kill a child on camera in the first act of the film.
By Spielberg’s own admission, he viewed Jurassic Park not only as the fulfillment of a childhood wish to do a dinosaur movie, but a return to the types of films that jumpstarted his career.
I have no embarrassment in saying that with Jurassic Park, I was really just trying to make a good sequel to Jaws. On land. It’s shameless. I can tell you that now.Steven Spielberg
Jurassic Park is the final entry in a trilogy that began with Duel. Duel was about a piece of technology run amok. Jaws was about nature striking back against man. Jurassic Park takes those two ideas and combines them, where science and technology interferes with nature, turning both into agents of mankind’s destruction. It’s an old story, one that found footing in the very studio where Spielberg produced his film.
A Universal Monster Movie
Out of all the studios that could have made Jurassic Park, Universal Studios was the best choice. Universal was built on monster movies. Throughout the 30s and 50s, Universal Studios helmed some of the most iconic horror films in history including Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and The Mummy, which is where the phrase Universal Monster come from. Many horror icons, including Spielberg’s own Jaws have joined this proud legacy. With Jurassic Park, Spielberg made perhaps the last great Universal monster movie, with the T Rex and raptors as its icons.
The film carries over and expands many tropes from Universal monster movies. Films like Frankenstein and Creature from the Black Lagoon similarly displayed themes of the misuse of science and the uncontrollability of nature. Another trope common amongst genre films were casting scientists in the lead, in this case Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler. But the film also injects this classic Frankenstein narrative with new more modern anxieties. The 90s were a time when the corporate world was continuing to expand. Concerns about rampant greed, short sightedness and lack of consumer safety are at the heart of Jurassic Park.
As a horror film, Jurassic Park is structured as a siege akin to Night of the Living Dead. Siege stories generate suspense by putting the heroes in a position of control and slowly giving that control to the antagonists. In this kind of horror, the setting plays a key role. Isla Nublar is divided into two camps; the jungle enclosures where the dinosaurs live and the places where the guests and employees work and stay. Like many siege settings, the characters are isolated from the rest of the world. Still, Isla Nublar seems an orderly place where even if anything goes wrong, there are still plenty of places to hide. It’s this sense of security the film takes away from the viewer once things start going wrong.
When the dinosaurs finally break out, the film still maintains some of its order, with much of the chaos occurring in the wild enclosures and the heroes attempting to make it back to home base. There is a sense that once home base is reached, all will be well. This is why the third act of the film is so effective, because it’s here that the dinosaurs are no longer confined to the enclosures. Here, they hide in power sheds and stalk human prey through kitchens. By film’s end, the dinosaurs have not only reclaimed the jungles, but usurped mankind as masters of the modern world.
Horrors Seen and Unseen
The film employs a number of tricks in how it portrays the dinosaurs, striking a balance between showing off the then-new technology of CGI and showing restraint to generate suspense. With CG being a new tool to harness, Spielberg obviously wanted to instill a sense of awe when the first dinosaur appears onscreen. But this presents a problem. How do you take away that wonder and turn it into terror?
The T-Rex is rarely implied in the film, serving to showcase the film’s new technology. Her first appearance is one of the film’s most malicious tricks, especially when you consider who is in danger. Kids love dinosaurs, and Lex and Tim are avatars for these younger viewers,. It’s them who the T-Rex targets during her first attack on the road. This harrowing ordeal destroys whatever wonder the audience might have felt during the earlier Brachiosaurus sequence. The T-Rex’s arrival is always foretold by her effects on the world around her, from her thunderous footfalls to her sending an entire herd of dinosaurs fleeing. Spielberg always builds up his star. Whenever she arrives, we don’t have time to feel wonder.
A much different tactic is employed when portraying the sinister Deinonychus (they’re not Velociraptors, dammit). During the making of Jaws, the mechanical sharks rarely worked, resulting in a minimal screen presence of the film’s star. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as keeping the shark offscreen actually helped elevate the tension, a lesson Spielberg carried over into Jurassic Park.
Unlike in Jaws, Stan Winston’s mechanical wonders functioned perfectly. Keeping the raptors offscreen for so long was a conscious decision, not a fluke of the effects not working. The film generously shows every dinosaur in the movie, but keeps the Deinonychus offscreen until the final act. As in Jaws, this more implied horror makes the raptors that much more terrifying, and make that first reveal that much more shocking. This balance between old tricks and new is key to the film’s success, and is one of the reasons the film outshines its sequels.
No Time for Wonder
Jurassic Park only gives the audience a few occasions to stop and admire the dinosaurs, during the two scenes involving brachiosaurs and an early scene involving a triceratops. Apart from that, the film is committed to keeping the audience on edge. Alfred Hitchcock once said his goal was to make the audience suffer as much as possible. With Jurassic Park, Spielberg follows his idol’s legacy, crafting some of the most ingenious and insidious audience torture of his career.
When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released, Stephen Spielberg was criticized for graphic depictions of child torture. Temple of Doom has nothing on Jurassic Park. Out of all the characters in the film, it’s Lex and Tim who suffer the most. Even in the final act, the film grants them no relief. After sitting down to enjoy a well deserved meal, the pair are pursued into the visitor’s center kitchen by a pair of hungry deinonychus. The sequence draws heavily on the slasher tropes inspired by Crichton’s own Westworld, making great use of a claustrophobic space and far too many close calls.
The ingenuity of Spielberg’s cruelty is perhaps best shown during the electric fence sequence, where Tim is nearly killed and the Deinonychus makes its screen debut. The sequence richly builds suspense by cross cutting between Sattler turning on the fences and Grant pleading with Tim to leap free before he is shocked. Rather than grant the audience any reprieve, Tim hangs on too long, suffering a near fatal electric shock that propels him backwards off the fence. It’s here, while the audience is still reeling, that Spielberg reveals the Deinonychus for the first time.
Those who grew up in the 90s have fond memories of Jurassic Park. It was a game changer for the film industry, ushering a new era of special effects and greatly expanding what was possible in the movies. Many have tried to recapture the same excitement generated by the original, but so far no sequels have succeeded. Maybe that’s because those making them spend so much time looking at the new tricks Jurassic Park pioneered, they miss how well it pulled off the old tricks about monsters hiding in the dark. Perhaps the upcoming Jurassic World Dominion, which will unite the old and current casts, will bring some of the terror found in the horribly named yet surprisingly decent short, Battle at Big Rock. If Dominion can use the Gigantasaurus as a horrifying creature as a oppose to a big set piece, then things could be looking up for the Jurassic World films. Jurassic Park is a frightening film, and maybe for its sequels to better succeed, they should stop focusing on making the picture bigger, and remember just how scary it was to imagine ourselves being stalked by raptors in the kitchen.
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