Relatively early in SAVAGE SPECIES, Jonathan Janz’s glorious, gore-ious celebration of the sleazy, straight-to-video creature features of yesteryear, an illicit campground kegger is overrun by vicious, supersized, intelligent hominids intent on devouring (after dismembering) everyone they meet. A ragtag team of survivors struggles to escape, but the beasts in hot pursuit are picking stragglers off, one by one.
As one survivor glances back through the rear window of their pickup, he sees that one creature “stood in the truck bed with a long-toed foot fixed on [an unlucky victim’s] upside-down crotch. It was tugging on the skin of the man’s legs as though trying to free him from a pesky pair of tight pants.”
The vivid, sly style of that excerpt is characteristic of Janz’s mayhem. Even as he embraces all kinds of cartoonish types and the minimal cliches of the central plot, even as the novel in summary can seem like the cheesiest kind of boilerplate genre pablum, the guy never met a sentence that he didn’t find a way to goose. There’s a real delight in the writing that complements his obvious delight in the familiar tropes and tricks of the story. (Janz also sidesteps — or mostly sidesteps — all forms of hipster-winking or ain’t-this-naughty ironic genre revisionism. For this alone, he deserves a deep bow from genre fans.)
That all said, let’s be clear what the purpose is. Right after the clever fussiness of the pants image, Janz has “the creature … ripping off gobbets of [flesh] as it yanked, chewing the pink stuff like a lion at a fresh kill.” SAVAGE SPECIES is relentlessly focused on the blood and guts. The violence doesn’t take long to appear, and then the novel is one frenetic setpiece of hyperbolic grotesquerie after another.
It is also relentlessly stereotypical, with a lovely suburban mom trying to find her abducted infant (and fending off her douchebag husband, to be played in the movie version by 1986-era William Atherton); she is assisted by a taciturn, tough-but-soft-where-it-matters handyman. They collide with a gaggle of smart late-adolescent reporters, who are managing to survive way better than the once-far-larger pack of dopey frat-boys and party-girls who serve as the novel’s (plentiful) redshirts.
There’s also a smart-ass, gone-to-seed Native American mystic (named Red Elk) who knows the deep history of these creatures, and would rather “boink” babes than spout sober sermons. Janz does avoid any whiff of the serious often thrown into sleazy horror or violence, as if a little bit of moral purpose would offset the charges of exploitation.
Nah. Janz takes his exploitation neat.
And even as I applaud that sentiment, I wish the intelligence he displays in so many aspects of his embrace of sleazy horror would have been as apparent in his treatment of women. Red Elk “casts” every woman he runs into, referencing the cheesecake protagonists (like Shannon Whirry or Mia Zottoli) whose bodies were often on display in the softcore counterparts to the sleazy horror of the ’80s. This is often a literal winking leer in the novel, and after a while seems more meta and less incisive than the way Janz embraces other conventions.
That’s a minor qualification of my recommendation. I’ll step back for other sorts of readers, too: If you don’t already love the idea of monsters racing around Peaceful Valley and ripping people up, no amount of careful prose craft is going to reframe your likely disinterest. This is for the fans.
And, for us fans, it’s a welcome reminder that stupid horror fun can be done with a great deal of intelligence and wit. —Mike Reynolds