The secret of Steven Spielberg’s success is that he is a horror filmmaker at heart. Several of his very early pictures (particularly Jaws, the 1975 megahit that put him on the map) actually belong to the genre, but once he became a brand name, he mostly sublimated his horror impulses into more respectable, family-friendly efforts. Blockbusters like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) still owe much of their success to the fact that their creator understands the elemental power of the dark and of the unknown — and that he could stage a good fright. Spielberg’s mostly benevolent aliens and phantoms retain their ability to terrify us: E.T. still contains one of the great jump scares of film history, and Close Encounters and Raiders would instantly have become two of the most disturbing horror flicks of all time if their finales had gone in slightly different directions. (It was also around the time of these films that Spielberg produced Poltergeist, which was nominally directed by Tobe Hooper but, according to many reports, was actually directed by Spielberg himself.)
Through the late 1980s, Spielberg pursued more prestigious efforts. But he scratched that horror itch again — and with lucrative results — with Jurassic Park, the most excellent dinosaur adventure that, for all its state-of-the-art special effects, still owed a lot to the creature features and monster movies of the director’s youth. (How fitting, also, that Jurassic Park, with its “‘Tis a mere flesh wound” portrait of corporate delusion, and Jaws, with its “the beaches are open” apocalyptic fatalism, are the two classics that suddenly feel the most relevant to our current coronavirus-induced madness. My colleague, Alison Willmore, discussed Jurassic Park’s newfound resonance eloquently yesterday, and she’ll be live-tweeting the movie tonight.)
Jurassic Park was a massive hit in the summer of 1993, and the one-two punch of that film and Schindler’s List coming in the same year represented a career peak for Spielberg. It was quite dramatic to live through at the time: After a couple of critical and box-office disappointments, some had begun to speculate that Spielberg was losing his touch; after 1993, however, it seemed that there was nothing he couldn’t do. But it also felt like he had become something of a new man. Even as he scored big with a dinosaur blockbuster, the levitational acclaim and Oscar glory surrounding Schindler’s List left many wondering if Spielberg had left childish things like dinosaur blockbusters behind.
And then Steven Spielberg doubled down. With The Lost World: Jurassic Park, his lucrative but much-maligned (even by him) 1997 sequel, Spielberg made the closest thing he had made to a horror movie since Jaws. That was actually one of the complaints leveled against the film by some critics, who found it inappropriately dark and violent for something aimed mostly at kids. From its opening scene — in which a wealthy family visits a seemingly deserted island and the young daughter is ominously accosted by a gaggle of tiny Compsognathus — to the many, many nighttime scenes in which characters are ripped apart by Tyrannosaurus rexes, The Lost World might be Spielberg’s nastiest film — a truly demented series of mostly wordless action and horror setpieces whose technical proficiency is matched only by their cruelty.
And dear God, I love it.
The movie demonstrates Spielberg’s directorial mean streak, a feature that rarely comes to the fore in his films — really, The Lost World’s closest compatriot in his oeuvre is probably Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, another sequel in which Spielberg was accused of taking things too far — but subtly lies at the heart of his ability to invest even the cuddliest material with a genuine sense of menace. Jurassic Park has a relatively low body count, but it still takes your breath away because Spielberg convinces you that all these people could die, which, given the kind of control he exerts over his material, is just another way of saying that he could kill them.
In The Lost World, he does, and they do. They die agonizingly, in the pitch-black dread of night. It’s basically a slasher movie, with setpieces that come straight out of horror: A chase through long grass in which characters keep getting pulled to their deaths; a man swarmed by teeny-tiny dinosaurs that basically peck him to death; another man bitten by a snake and then yanked by a T. rex behind a waterfall, which suddenly turns into a red downpour of blood; a T. rex rampaging through suburbia, eating someone’s family dog; a T. rex teaching its young offspring to kill by encouraging it to tear another guy to pieces. (The movie should have been called Don’t Mess With T. rexes.)
That’s not to say, however, that the film does not have a soul. I’ve written elsewhere about the way Spielberg’s perspective has changed over the course of his career from that of a child to that of a father: His early films are full of the kind of awe, wonder, and elemental anxiety we associate with childhood, but by the 1990s, they become about the anxieties of parenthood. (You can actually see the precise point when the transformation happens, halfway through 1991’s Hook, which goes from being a film about a man desperately trying to reconnect with his childhood to one about a man embracing the fact that he is a father.) Jurassic Park was partly about Sam Neill’s kid-hating Alan Grant warming to the responsibilities of adulthood and parenthood after being stuck with the two kids in that film. Had Spielberg made that movie ten years earlier, the story would likely have focused on the children; as it is, the adults get the character arcs.
The Lost World further explores the parental protective impulse. Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm is a globe-trotting adventurer who has been neglectful of his teenage daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester). He’s saddled with her when she stows away on his mission to Isla Sorna to rescue his paleontologist girlfriend Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore). But Malcolm gets a blunt lesson in paternal dedication from the film’s T. rexes, who are set off by the capture of their infant (which is being used by the humans as bait), and who, we are told, regularly define their territory based where their offspring are. Compare that to Malcolm, who doesn’t even know that his daughter has been cut from the school gymnastics team; she shows him, however, in the film’s corniest scene, when she does an elaborate spin move off a horizontal bar to kick a velociraptor to its death.
So the movie’s not perfect. But that sort of adds to its deep, personal weirdness. A movie where a child gymnast bravely fells a dinosaur feels like a cliché of a Spielbergian cliché, and its presence here, amid all the ghastly nocturnal carnage, sticks out like a sore thumb — a vestige, perhaps, of the old Spielberg. Its very awkwardness reveals how much he’s changed. In many ways, it makes sense that The Lost World would betray the precision and wholesomeness of Jurassic Park. I suspect Spielberg was in the process of rediscovering who he was as a filmmaker — and maybe even as a person. The films that came out of this period (which continued through the late 1990s and early 2000s) are some of the more conflicted works of his career. And The Lost World will always stand out to me as among the most conflicted and most beautiful.