“SUPER 8” and its comic book roots

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Originally published at Fangoria.com on July 4, 2011

Now that SUPER 8 has passed the $100-million mark at the box office, the time is right to look back at the inspirations behind this well-crafted monster movie. Like every filmmaker, young Charles Kaznyk wholeheartedly believes his picture is of the utmost importance. While making his zombie movie—entitled THE CASE—Charles and his friends unexpectedly witness a train crash, which ultimately leads to the release of a violent and hideous creature.

What makes SUPER 8 refreshingly charming and genuinely nostalgic is writer/director J.J. Abrams’ influences from sci-fi/horror movies and comic books. Played by newcomer Riley Griffiths, Charles Kazynk is a bonified horror geek, who has watched George A. Romero movies one too many times and has a massive collection of comic books. Because the film is set during the late 1970s, the production design needs to reflect the clothing, hairstyle and music of that time period. Charles’ messy room is littered with toys, posters and horror comics, specifically CREEPY magazine. Originally printed by Warren Publishing, CREEPY was an anthology magazine with MAD-inspired black and white illustrations. Each issue had a stand-alone story presented by its host, Uncle Creepy.

During the ’70s, CREEPY and its sister publications, EERIE and VAMPIRELLA, published numerous morality and coming-of-age tales. Usually in these stories, an ordinary situation takes on an ironic and paranormal twist. These everyday situations sometimes involved children because these comics were aimed to young readers. In the film, what was supposed to be a regular night of filming suddenly turns into a life-and-death situation for Charles and his friends. When a pick-up truck collides with an incoming train, the massive derailment forces a powerful creature to escape from its secured compartment.

Because these horror comics were targeted to their age group, children were usually the heroes in these stories. The adolescents were the ones who knew more than the adults. During the town meeting, the misguided adults are arguing with Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) about the electrical blackouts, unexplained robberies and missing dogs. Echoing Cold War prejudices, the adults believe their homes are being invaded by another superpower. After watching their footage of the train crash, Charles and Joe (Joel Courtney) realize a superstrong monster is lurking around in the shadows.

In the film, the real antagonist to the kids is the military. Led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), the troops are sent in to remove evidence of the crash site and capture the escaped being. Reminiscent to the social commentary in these comics, the film has a strong anti-torture message as Colonel Nelec poisons an innocent civilian in order to find the escapee. Rebelling against authority, Charles and Joe unexpectedly find themselves confronting Nelec and his armed soldiers. In a deadly game of cat and mouse, the entire group is unfortunately caught in the middle of the creature’s path.

Even though Steven Speilberg’s name is printed everywhere with SUPER 8, Abrams’ personal stamp can be felt all over this movie. Anyone who has seen Abrams’ television series LOST will instantly notice his visual style and writing skills. Substitute plane for train, you will still have an elaborate and spectacular crash sequence. Similar to Jack and Kate in LOST, Joe and Alice (Elle Fanning) have issues with their fathers. Much like the series itself, there are clever uses of flashbacks in the movie told through film footage. The creature wants out of the small American town, just like the Smoke Monster wanted off the island. What also made the TV series and this movie stand out are Larry Fong’s eye-catching photography and Michael Giacchino’s memorable score.

Surprisingly, this 2011 summer season is different because audiences have two hit movies that are period pieces, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and SUPER 8. Depicting the ’70s, SUPER 8 represents a trip down memory lane through horror movies and comics. The list of influences is right there on screen for any viewer to see. Delivering on suspense and excitement, SUPER 8 is a purely entertaining monster flick.