Dinosaur movies are typically categorized as horror films, but not all of them are—and so I thought I’d use two intriguing-in-their-own-right dinosaur films as part of my ongoing exploration of what makes a horror film. In [part 1 of this discussion], I argued that Disney / Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (2015) is not only not horror but represents an explicitly anti-horror project. Carnosaur, on the other hand, a low-budget Roger Corman production, is unequivocally a horror film. Carnosaur was released on May 21, 1993, just four weeks before Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park—and it bears some resemblance to its big-budget competitor. While not as good a film as Jurassic Park, Carnosaur is vastly more interesting, especially for horror fans.
Carnosaur is a crazy film—and while it’s currently not easy to find, it’s worth the effort to try to get your hands on it. Diane Ladd plays Dr. Jane Tiptree, a woman whom one male character calls “the fairy godmother of military biotech.” Tiptree has been sequestered away, working to create a hybrid race of dinosaurs to whose eggs women give birth right before they die. Tiptree’s plan, it turns out, is to wipe out the human race for their sins, creating a new and more worthy species (genetically-modified dinosaurs) to continue life on earth. You might be forgiven for thinking that some of the finer points of Tiptree’s scheme are a little illogical—and my advice would be, well, to enjoy and not overthink it!
Diane Ladd as the mad scientist steals the show, as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert agreed in their review of the film. Check it out here:
While Ebert gave the film (despite Ladd’s performance) a thumbs-down, Siskel gave it a (marginal) thumbs-up, calling Dr. Tiptree “one of the craziest characters we’ve ever seen in a movie” (and he meant that in a good way). While he says he suspects that Jurassic Park will be a better movie with better dinosaurs (It is!), he questions whether the soon-to-be blockbuster will have “any humans as interesting” as Jane Tiptree. (It doesn’t.)So what makes Carnosaur a horror film? Besides gore, in which this film is awash!
Mad Scientist: Dr. Jane Tiptree is at the heart of what makes Carnosaur a horror film, and it’s part of a long tradition, beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), of showing humans meddling with nature, thus profoundly transgressing the status quo and the dictates of law (natural, divine, and human). What makes Carnosaur particularly great is that its mad scientist is a woman, and there aren’t very many of them. (Check out this article on the history of the female mad scientist by Jess Nevins.)
Tiptree’s ambitions are enormous, moreover. She’s not only creating life—new dinosaur hybrids—but she’s also trying to destroy the entire human race! “The earth was not made for us,” she declares, in one of many memorable speeches. “She was made for the dinosaurs. She was made to their dimensions. Human beings are ants crawling through their living rooms.” Tiptree decides humans must be destroyed because they are an inferior and “unruly” species. She’s playing God with a vengeance here, considering nothing so set in “nature” that she can’t destroy and remake it.
And it’s not just Tiptree who’s meddling with nature, either. It’s a practice that pervades the film to such an extent that it seems like it’s becoming the “norm” of the corporate / military world. Another scientist in the film is genetically engineering food—and when he learns of Tiptree’s plan, he plans to prevent the demise of the species (after all the women die) by engineering artificial wombs and creating a “new, stronger race” of humans. Unlike the Jurassic Park films, which “contain” their mad scientists (not least by putting them on islands), in Carnosaur, we see the urge to tamper with nature is everywhere—our present and our future.
Transgressed Borders: If the anti-horror project of The Good Dinosaur (and even, I would add, the Jurassic Park films) is to re-draw boundaries around species, Carnosaur flagrantly and persistently transgresses them. All kinds of species are being genetically mixed—and we see, more than once, women giving birth to abject black eggs, as well as creatures bursting out of their wombs (à la Alien). If the primary symbol of The Good Dinosaur’s anti-horror is the circle, which keeps species separate, this film’s symbol might be the woman giving birth to the genetically modified dinosaur—violently crossing all “natural” boundaries.
The opening of Carnosaur, moreover, shows the crossing of “natural” borders to be pervasive. It begins with documentary-style scenes of a poultry farm, alternating with computer screens indicating the splicing of varied species’ genetic material. This opening roots the film’s practices of genetic recombining firmly in the realm of the real, anticipating at the very least our current highly unnatural practices of factory farming, as well as genetically modifying foods.
Intertextuality: Horror films are deeply intertextual, referencing their predecessors in ways that add layers of meanings. Carnosaur is a cornucopia of intertextual references. There’s a diner scene in which a couple is scared by the locals’ talk of ravening dinosaur attacks that’s straight out of The Birds (1963); the sickening of women who then all give birth to something unnatural evokes Village of the Damned (1960); the birth scenes themselves reference the more explicit body horror of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), It’s Alive (1974), and The Brood (1979). Dr. Tiptree draws on H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and Island of Lost Souls (1932) in one of my favorite lines: “As my mentor Dr. Moreau said: in the study of nature, one must become as remorseless as nature herself.” The ending of the film reminded me of the end of The Andromeda Strain (1971) (yes, there’s a virus component of Carnosaur too). And there are also shades of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) in the genetic memory or instinct that drives the dinosaur into its old migration path.
In the end, if Carnosaur makes clear that the horror film is above all about the refusal of things (humans, animals) to remain in their “proper” place, the intertextual references add to this project. Carnosaur bursts at the seams with invocations of other films, showing that the horror film itself, in form as well as content, refuses to be contained. That is one of the essences of horror.