Little Joe, backed by the BFI Film Fund with National Lottery money, is in cinemas from 21 February 2020
Like the zombie movie, the plant horror subspecies has evolved through the decades, reflecting on the different social anxieties of each era.
When the genre first emerged, with films like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Day of the Triffids (1963), the idea of alien plant life slowly polluting our environment was used as an allegory for the red scare, the films reflecting upon – and satirising – western society’s fear of an enemy within.
As this idea became outmoded, plant horror fell out of favour, making sense only as a pastiche of these earlier genre hallmarks. Any film that appeared to be sincerely deploying these B-movie tropes was greeted with derision upon release. Need we say more about Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Invasion (2007) or M. Night Shyamalan’s widely panned The Happening (2008)?
Now, however, there is evidence of new shoots. In the case of the two most recent examples on this list, Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) and Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe (2019), the idea of malicious plantlife has offered two distinct commentaries on mental health. Indeed, it’s surprising to look back and see just how many filmmakers have created something similarly thoughtful out of a subgenre that seems inherently silly.
Here are 10 plant horror movies to veg out to.
The Thing from Another World (1951)
Director Christian Nyby
John Carpenter’s gruesome 1982 remake may be held in higher regard among audiences today, but the original Howard Hawks-produced adaptation of the novella Who Goes There? is a masterpiece of creeping atmosphere. It bears a simple, ingenious B-movie premise: a US air force crew finds a flying saucer and humanoid body buried in the ice while stationed at the North Pole. When the ice melts, a murderous alien creature is set loose.
Where this differs from Carpenter’s later adaptation is in the depiction of the titular ‘thing’, here described as an advanced form of plant life. The group’s paranoia about the way the thing is making their environment unsafe foreshadows the more detailed allegories that would be found in later plant horror films. Nyby’s masterstroke is only depicting the creature in dim lighting, making it every bit the abstract nightmare.
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)
Director Freddie Francis
Horror anthology films are typically hit-and-miss affairs, and – if we’re honest – the 1965 Amicus horror Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is no exception. But its most winning segment is the rare example of a plant horror film being stripped of its deeper allegories and succeeding as an intense work on its own terms.
Released a few years after Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), this segment feels like director Freddie Francis’s attempt to make something sincerely horrifying using a similar premise to Corman’s comedy. A businessman (played by Alan Freeman) returns home from holiday only to discover that a plant in his garden is growing out of control and is beginning to kill everything in its path. This is one of the briefest sections in the film, but it’s the most ingeniously executed, pulling off the simplest conceit in a little over 10 minutes.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Director Philip Kaufman
Jack Finney’s book, The Body Snatchers, has been adapted so many times we could have easily placed two separate adaptations on this list. Don Siegel’s noirish 1956 adaptation and Abel Ferrara’s bold, divisive Gulf War-era take are equally worth seeking out, but it’s the second telling of this story, by Philip Kaufman, that most accurately captures the unrelenting paranoia so inherent within Finney’s story.
Kaufman pushes Siegel’s adaptation in a more intense direction by grafting on abrasive sound design that makes the vast cityscape of San Francisco feel claustrophobic. The threat from the pod people seems inescapable. It’s this creation of paranoia through aesthetics that makes it feel of a piece with the best conspiracy thrillers of the decade, such as Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974). This bold reimagining makes Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers one of the best (and most enduring) remakes in cinema history.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Director Sam Raimi
One of the original video nasties, Sam Raimi’s cabin-in-the-woods classic manages to literalise the threat from the woodland surroundings in ways that remain controversial to this day. The film’s most infamous sequence features one of the female characters being sexually assaulted by a tree, which has become possessed after a demon has been unwittingly reawakened. It’s the most extreme cinematic example of a violent attack by plantlife that doesn’t lapse into being tongue in cheek – indeed, it’s all the more stark due to Raimi’s love for hyper-violent slapstick in the rest of the film.
Although Sam Raimi has long since distanced himself from the brutality of this sequence, the scene remains fiercely debated among horror fans to this day. It’s also proved weirdly influential among genre filmmakers, including on the 2008 short Treevenge, which follows Christmas trees on a murderous killing spree.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Director Frank Oz
When adapting Alan Menken’s musical for the screen, Frank Oz was adamant about one thing: the kitschy production would stay true to the off-Broadway stage show (itself adapted from Roger Corman’s low-budget 1960 original) and follow through with a nihilistic climax. He was given the green light, but this bleaker ending had to be ditched after test audiences hated it.
Oz reshot the ending but remained adamant that this was just a watered down version of the intended finale: Audrey II kills both Seymour (Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene), before reproduced versions of the plant become a consumer craze, taking over the Earth in the process. When this version eventually resurfaced in a director’s cut, more than 25 years after initial release, it was greeted with enthusiasm from fans, and fully transformed this tongue-in-cheek tribute to the genre into a nihilistic plant horror in its own right.
Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)
Director Kazuki Omori
Ishiro Honda’s legendary 1954 kaiju movie Godzilla was a seismic pop culture event in Japan, using monster movie storytelling to tell a complex allegory of a country facing the aftermath of Hiroshima. This reading faded into the background as the ensuing series progressed and increasingly took the format of Godzilla squaring off against another monstrous foe.
Kazuki Omori’s 1989 effort, Godzilla vs. Biollante, manages to recapture the spirit of the original, combining the unadulterated thrills of Godzilla facing off against the titular plant creature (arguably second to only Mothra in terms of Godzilla’s sparring partners within the franchise) with a commentary on the uneasy relationship between science and capitalism. The film, the second in the franchise’s rebooted Heisei era, was a box office disappointment on its initial release, but the themes it tackles help it live on as one of the richest sequels in a franchise that has run nearly 70 years.
Little Otik (2000)
Director Jan Svankmajer
Czech director Jan Svankmajer is known for his twisted takes on fairytales, but his loose spin on the relatively obscure folktale Otesánek is by far his strangest concoction. A childless couple have arrived at a painful point in their relationship, so the husband (Jan Hartl) digs out a tree stump from the garden and pretends it’s their new baby. Unfortunately, his wife immediately gives into believing this fantasy, and the couple begin to raise it – and that’s before it starts to awaken and develop a taste for human flesh.
Of all the movies to riff on Little Shop of Horrors, this is the most inspired – and is every bit the nihilistic cousin to Dinner for Adele, the 1978 Czech comedy about a man-eating plant that Svankmajer was recruited to do the stop-motion work for. It has fallen into relative obscurity since its 2000 release, but this darkest of dark comedies needs to be rediscovered.
The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
Director Colm McCarthy
Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts combines the thrills of the plant horror and zombie subgenres, reimagining the zombie virus as a mutated fungal disease that causes people to become flesh eaters. The hope for humanity is second-generation “hungries”, who crave human flesh but also have standard social and intellectual skills.
It’s here that the quintessentially paranoid aspect of plant horrors past makes an appearance, as the elders are convinced young Melanie (Sennia Nanua) holds the potential to cure the disease due to her exceptional gifts. But like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, she remains convinced her kind are the future of humanity. Her differing allegiances throughout the drama are tearing the human survivors with her apart. Many critics described The Girl with All the Gifts as the best British zombie film since 28 Days Later (2002), but you could go further and say that – at least since 1963’s The Day of the Triffids – it’s the most remarkable plant horror to be spawned from these isles.
Director Alex Garland
Pitched somewhere between the existential dread of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and the more straightforward monster-movie thrills of Lake Placid (1999), Alex Garland’s take on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel plunges the audience deep into the shimmer – a quarantined zone where time is manipulated and all the plants and animals within have mutated. This is the first recent plant horror to use the idea of nature manipulating our surroundings as a way to address depression, as the shimmer makes the characters withdraw from their emotions the longer they spend time there.
This is only the most straightforward reading, however, of a film that caused controversy on release, when Paramount Pictures sold all international rights to Netflix out of fear they had a film that was “too intellectual” for audiences on their hands.
Little Joe (2019)
Director Jessica Hausner
Jessica Hausner’s Cannes competition title presents a coolly intelligent modern spin on plant horror that doubles as a mental-health allegory. Emily Beecham plays Alice, a plant breeder working on a new strain of flower, the scent of which can induce happiness. She names the breed ‘Little Joe’ after her son. However, after taking one home, the plants begin to pollinate, and anybody inhaling the pollen starts to act strangely, putting the plant’s well being above their own self-interest.
Hausner, the Austrian filmmaker behind Lourdes (2009) and Amour fou (2014), brings an intriguing ambiguity and visual precision to this laboratory drama. It’s her first English-language film, and it makes for an interesting comparison with the recent works of Yorgos Lanthimos in how an idiosyncratic continental director adapts to working in a British setting. The surreal nature of Little Joe doesn’t neuter the provocative questions about the ethics of mood manipulation that are at its root. Not for nothing has it been billed as The Day of the Triffids for the antidepressants era.