This ICHF was written by SkarmorySilver, who you can find at https://twitter.com/silver_skarmory. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!
If you’ve known me for long enough, both online and off, you’ll have found early on that one of the things that stands out among my long list of interests is prehistoric life. It might be a bit of a surprise though that instead of the usual popular movies about extinct animals, the top of the list being the one I will be discussing in this article, I grew up on documentaries about them. Where some people would say that they grew up with (aside from the obvious) The Land Before Time movies or maybe Dino Riders or something, I grew up with BBC’s Walking With series and Discovery Channel’s Dinosaur Planet. Despite my own insistence on scientific accuracy in educational media about such organisms, however, one particular piece of dinosaur media more than stands out among all the rest for me, artistic-license-related metaphorical warts and all. Ever since the first contest for fan-submitted articles for HorrorFlora’s Iconic Characters of Horror Fiction occurred, I’ve been patiently waiting for the second so I could analyze one of the most iconic characters in it, and now that it’s happening I can’t wait to do exactly that.
The character I’m talking about, of course, is none other than “The Big One”, the “clever girl”, or as everyone familiar with Jurassic Park calls her, just “the Velociraptor“.
If you readers wouldn’t mind me letting you in on a personal secret, I’ve actually got a hideously poor track record when it comes to stomaching most horror movies, particularly the more recent ones – the things that turns me off for the most part are the excessively bleak tone where everyone dies horribly in the end and the over-reliance on cheap, often gratuitous scares that often do nothing except suddenly jump out at you… the latter of which can easily dissuade someone as neurotic and easily startled as me. So it’s a surprise even to me that my all-time favorite movie, Jurassic Park, can be (and by some, has been) considered a horror film. I think it’s because it has a lot of similarities with older works that take the time to ponder topics like mortality, morality, or the consequences of our actions, and that also attempt to have their characters be people whom you can find yourselves emotionally attached to, with varying degrees of success. When the scary portions of the movie happen, the jumpscares are few and far between, the fear response is based on the constant, looming threat posed to the victims, and above all, while cloning dinosaurs from amber obviously isn’t really possible, the film does such a good job of making it LOOK like it could happen through realistic behavior on the part of every human character, well-done pacing, engaging dialogue, and authentic interactions from start to finish. You really feel for everyone as the power goes out and things take a frightening turn.
And then, just when you think things can’t get any worse… THE BIG ONE says hello to the naughty humans and decides it’s murder time.
Velociraptor – the actual fossil animal, as opposed to the depiction seen in the movie – was actually discovered in 1923, and prior to the 90’s it was an obscure animal only discussed in scientific textbooks. From the 70’s onward, it would frequently be brought up in relation to its larger cousin Deinonychus, the genus whose discovery single-handedly kicked off the Dinosaur Renaissance. This series of discoveries and new hypotheses dramatically changed the academic view of these creatures from lumbering cold-blooded reptilian colossi to the more active, agile, bird-like animals we now know they are. Understandably, though, the public was adamant on keeping dinosaurs as quite literal “fearfully great reptiles”, because who wouldn’t like to imagine that there was a time period when terrible lizards dominated every corner of the planet? For all intents and purposes, the Mesozoic was the chronological equivalent of those places on old maps that would, at least in popular culture, be marked with the phrase “Here Be Dragons” – unknown, untamed, and full of terrifying beasts that defy the imagination. In other words, to popular perception at the time, science was “ruining” dinosaurs.
So when one Michael Crichton wanted to write a novel about a theme park full of extinct animals that goes pear-shaped faster than a raptor can get the drop on an overconfident game warden, it’s safe to say he had his work cut out for him. If he couldn’t scare the public with a dinosaur depiction based on the new discoveries about this clade, then the concept of the prehistoric monster would, well, go the way of the dinosaurs (well, the nonavian ones, but that’s beside the point). Having personally read the novel and its sequel, I’d say he succeeded admirably despite the books having a couple of unrelated issues of their own, but this article is about the movie, so let’s get back to that, shall we?
Jurassic Park: The Movie had to cut out a lot of elements from the book to make the two-hour-and-seven-minute runtime it had, and whatever it kept in its list of things to adapt, it had to make it count. The Velociraptors (dubbed as such rather than Deinonychus because Crichton had referred to Gregory S. Paul’s classification that lumped them under the Velociraptor genus… which was rectified just a smidge too late) were, of course, a key element that needed to be included no matter what. I mean, their involvement in the plot, and particularly the scientists underestimating these things, forms the freaking crux of what I like to call “the ‘great googly moogly it’s all gone to shit’ part” of the book. The Tyrannosaurus deserves – and has – her own ICHF article, but really, it’s the Velociraptors that are the saurian movers and shakers of the harrowing latter part of the story. If they weren’t convincing on the big screen, the movie would be a disaster. But being based on Deinonychus – the poster-child for the movement portraying dinosaurs as being more like birds than lizards – meant that being just your typical lumbering antediluvian horror was off the table. What was Steven Spielberg to do to make an undeniably bird-like dinosaur into a frightening villain?
In truth, it was a combination of factors that led to the Jurassic Park “Velociraptor” (I will use this genus name henceforth for the sake of clarity) becoming as iconic of a movie villain as Freddy Kreuger, Dracula, or Ridley Scott’s Alien. One is that in hindsight, the reason we don’t think much of birds – the dinosaurs still with us today – is that they are almost all much smaller than we are. Even today, the comparison between feathered dinosaurs and chickens is always derisive – nobody thinks a typical bird could be a danger to us humans. But the birds that eat other animals – with particular emphasis on those which the word “raptor” originally applied to, such as hawks and eagles – are nightmare fuel to the animals they hunt, and even creatures as big as deer and sheep aren’t safe… to say nothing of what a pissed-off bird of prey can do to a person. A hawk the size of a wolf (which sums up the real Deinonychus pretty well) would be a creature you wouldn’t want to run into, whether it be in a dark alley, an abandoned kitchen, a field of long grass, or just about anywhere else, honestly. So if you made a predatory bird much bigger than normal – to, say, six feet in height – you’d have a pretty terrifying monster. And the early claymation test clips for the Velociraptors did, indeed, demonstrate very bird-like movements already. These agile, fleet-footed hunters were a far cry from the ponderous giants of old, but with a little tweaking, they were well on their way to becoming every bit as monstrous as the cinematic dinosaurs before them. Note, however, that I specifically said “with a little tweaking”. I’ll come back to that later, but first, let’s see what the film’s presentation of the raptors was like. (The book has its own approach, too, but I’m more familiar with the film, so…)
The very first scene of the movie is a botched attempt at transferring… something… into its new enclosure. Whatever is in the moving box, it decides that peace was never an option and rams the box, jostling it just enough to allow it to drag a worker inside for a savage mauling. We only get glimpses of the shadowed figure inside, and a flash of an ominous reptilian eye, but nothing else is shown – only the screaming worker and a frantic Robert Muldoon (Say it with me, everyone: “SHOOOOT HEEERRRR!!”) appear on screen. It’s a vivid scene that sets the tone of the movie quite nicely – the park is already on the verge of catastrophic failure due to the staff underestimating the animals it’s keeping. And as we find out much later in the movie, the raptors are more or less the epitome of that problem.
Following this, we get another sneak preview of sorts, in the form of a fossilized “Velociraptor” skeleton being unearthed, wherein Dr. Alan Grant discusses how raptors are actually more like birds than cold-blooded reptiles, and gives a young heckler the fright of his life by describing in graphic detail how a raptor pack is capable of killing you. Kudos has to be given to the script here, because as I’ve mentioned before, Velociraptor and Deinonychus were both fairly obscure before this movie. The T. rex already has enough of a reputation that its mere mention is a big deal, with no explanations necessary, but not so much for the raptors, which was arguably why a few discussions were devoted specifically to what made them so formidable. The scene with Grant scaring the crap out of that poor kid does that job admirably, and the dialogue he delivers is downright chilling in its own right. You have little more than his word to go on here, but the mental image is vivid, disturbing, and pitch-perfect as an introduction to the most dangerous type of dinosaur in the movie.
So when the park visit includes a live dinosaur egg hatching and Grant discovers that the baby is a Velociraptor, the horrified look on his face when he asks, “You’ve bred RAPTORS?” pretty much speaks for itself. And I’m pretty sure audiences watching this movie for the first time would’ve felt the same way, too.
Immediately afterward is a brief stop by a high-security, electric-fence-lined pen containing more Velociraptors – ADULT Velociraptors – and Muldoon introducing himself to the other protagonists with the sentiment that of all the kinds of dinosaurs that the park could’ve recreated, THIS one shouldn’t have been one of them. At the same time, there’s a feeding session going on, with a live steer being lowered into the raptor pen, followed by the noises of exactly what you’d expect if you’ve been paying attention to the movie up to this point. We don’t see the raptors themselves, but the SOUNDS are once again self-explanatory. These are very dangerous dinosaurs, and whatever the staff does, they should NEVER let them out of their enclosure. And the conversation following this formally introduces the Big One, their most recent acquisition, describing how vicious she is even for her own kind, having killed all but two other raptors. It also provides one other thing that’ll be revisited later: These creatures are SMART. Smarter than the old perception of dinosaurs as having walnut-sized brains and too little intelligence to survive, and certainly smarter than the park suspected. They were testing the fences for weaknesses systematically. THEY REMEMBER.
For much of the rest of the movie, the Velociraptors are all but brushed aside, as the T. rex takes center stage, and in fact there’s almost no mention of them at all… until a complete shutdown and restarting of every single power source in the park is required in order to reboot the computer system and get rid of the virus one Dennis Nedry (or, uh, one ex-Dennis Nedry, but I digress). To get the power back on, Ellie and Muldoon have to get to the maintenance shed where the switches are located, but as they make their way there, they happen upon the Velociraptor pen… and discover a hole big enough for a six-foot turkey to fit through in the now-deactivated electric fence.
You can almost FEEL the tension from this point forward. You don’t know when or where the former inhabitants of the raptor pen will show up. You almost expect them to jump out at Ellie or Muldoon at any moment before they can get the power back on. Of course, they don’t, and Ellie succeeds in her task… until a live Velociraptor lunges out at her! And then, even worse still, a fleeing Ellie thinks she’s found another supporting character who went to the shed before her… only to discover to her horror that she’s instead found HIS SEVERED ARM. Seriously, that particular scene traumatized a close friend of mine when he saw the film during his youth, and I was scarred for life only slightly less when I saw that the first time. Still, if this isn’t a good indicator that we’ve reached “the ‘great googly moogly it’s all gone to shit’ part”, I don’t know what is.
So that was the first introduction to the Velociraptors proper, and from this point forward, the movie pretty much never looks back. Every single scene involving the raptors is truly incredible in terms of effects, cinematography, music and sound, and nail-biting pacing. Cunning predators though they are, they defy every expectation of both the park staff and the audience to awe- and terror-inspiring effect. Muldoon thinks he can get the drop on one of them? The Big One, the “Clever Girl” I mentioned earlier, ambushes him in a similar way to how Alan described near the start of the movie. Ellie claims the humans will be safe inside the visitor center as long as the raptors don’t figure out how to open doors? Cue the kitchen doorknob turning. The kids, Alan, and Ellie try to sneak their way out of the computer lab through the air duct to avoid attracting their attention? One of them suddenly knocks down one of the AC hatches just as Lex is on top of it and almost grabs her. So when the two remaining raptors corner the humans in the visitor center entrance hall, that’s the point where you think there’s no escape and that everyone is doomed to die… which is what makes the T. rex showing up and killing them both such a triumphant moment. Nature threatens, but nature saves. There’s a reason that climactic fight is THE most iconic moment of the film, and one of the most famous in cinematic history.
Like with the T. rex, the raptors were portrayed using state-of-the-art visual effects, with the claymation originally proposed replaced with computer-generated models. Ultimately, though, the motion work done with the claymation dinosaurs was used as a basis for that of the CGI creatures, which had one significant advantage over claymation: smoother, more fluid movement, like that of an actual animal, without the jerkiness of stop-motion or the clear traces of a miniature model being spliced into the film. For their time, the resultant effects looked real, and they still hold up reasonably well today. But additionally, the raptors were brought to life via sophisticated puppetry – the kind that allowed the actors to interact with the creatures as though they really were present. Muldoon got pounced on by a stuntman in a raptor suit, and those viciously-taloned feet stepping on the kitchen floor were part of a life-sized armature worn by another technician like a pair of pants. More than a little cinematic sleight of hand had to be used to avoid ruining the movie magic, but the end result was was worth it. These creatures seemed a lot more like real animals than any movie monster before them. They moved, ran, leaped, and pounced so fluidly and believably that if you were to watch the movie in the theaters, you’d almost think those were real dinosaurs come back to life.
Furthermore, it should be noted that for the most part, the dinosaurs behaved like real animals, rather than the savage primordial hellbeasts pop culture portrayed them as prior to this movie. Even the T. rex was focused primarily on hunting creatures bigger than people. So it stands to reason that the Velociraptors are unusual BECAUSE their being so inclined to hunt and prey on human beings is unusual. Like many man-eating animals in real life, they’ve figured out that we are easy prey, and unlike the T. rex, they are relatively small enough to find a grown man a worthwhile target. There are a few scenes from later installments in the series that show that the raptors are willing to hunt other sources of fresh meat – including other dinosaurs – but as far as I can tell, they’ve claimed more lives throughout the franchise than any other depicted prehistoric species. In any other circumstance, they might have been a natural part of the ecosystem, but because we have discovered them through means we should have been more careful with and have failed to take the necessary precautions, we are now at their mercy. It is truly no wonder Muldoon wanted them all destroyed.
Even with my insistence on scientific accuracy in dinosaur media, I hope I’m not inviting controversy and hate when I say that I sincerely and unironically love the look of Jurassic Park‘s Velociraptor. It’s not accurate, sure, but it’s iconic for a reason. That said, you may ask, why does it resemble a long-legged, sickle-clawed lizard, with nary a feather in sight? Even before the Jurassic Park film’s release, it had already been speculated that smaller predatory dinosaurs, such as Deinonychus and indeed Velociraptor, were so bird-like in their biology and anatomy that in ancient times, they would’ve been covered in feathers, not the scales or scutes of the layman’s definition of “reptiles”. Indeed, modern palaeo-art portrays dromaeosaurs as being long-tailed birds with toothed snouts instead of beaks, far from the bipedal lizard-like creatures from 80’s artwork such as the kind made by John Sibbick. But the idea of feathered dinosaurs, at least at the time of the first JP film’s production, was still not yet accepted because there hadn’t been that much evidence for it – the famous feathered dinosaur finds of China had not been unearthed yet. So at first glance, it’s somewhat understandable that the movie’s Velociraptor is entirely scaly. But I believe there’s another reason for the absence of feathers, and a simple one at that: scaly dinosaurs just look more “monstrous”. From a layman’s perspective, an animal with a soft covering like a mammal or a bird would be less likely to be as formidable than a scaly animal like a reptile, purely because we are more familiar with mammals and birds than we are with snakes and lizards. Granted, we have monstrous mammals like werewolves, but they have been changed drastically from the original animal in various ways, such as being much bigger or given subtle characteristics of other animals like humans. And that, I believe, is the key distinction that makes the design of the JP raptor a “monster” rather than a mere “animal”. It takes the framework of a Deinonychus, heavily distorts it with such changes as paw-like rather than wing-like hands, an even larger size than in the actual fossils, and more menacing teeth and talons, and drapes the covering of a different animal like a monitor lizard over the whole thing in the vein of those weird video-game mods where one character gets the rigging of another very different one, often with freaky results. To both the layman and the palaeontologist, it seems unnatural the more you look at it, and that plays into one of the themes of the book version of Jurassic Park: that the public’s perception is key. There is frequent mention that these genetically engineered creatures are not the same as their prehistoric counterparts, not just because DNA of other animals was used to fill in the gaps in the genome, but because they were purposely engineered to fit the public’s perception of dinosaurs rather than imitating the real thing. Basically, imagine Frankenstein’s monster, but instead of parts of human bodies, it’s the genetic code of animals both living and extinct – but as with Victor’s creation, no thought was given to the well-being or behavior of the raptors, with lethal results.
This is why I have no hate-boner for the Jurassic Park-styled Velociraptors, and why I have come to admire their designs on their own merits. These movie monsters are not real, and never were to begin with, but in every sense, they are predators entirely of human creation. What the filmmakers did was take a real animal, distort its appearance and behavior, and turn it into a beast of modern mythology in a startlingly similar way to how dragons, unicorns, and krakens came to be. And just like the real-life inspirations of many ancient fantastical beasts are seen as more mundane and familiar than their legendary counterparts – and hence, more “boring” – so too does the public seemingly find the purposely monstrous “raptor” more exciting than the subtler but more scientifically accurate “dromaeosaur”. And that’s okay. I’ve always been fascinated by what dinosaurs were really like, and I’m probably among those who wish Hollywood would be willing to depict them in truer ways to the fossil record, but deliberately vintage movie monster dinosaurs can also look interesting and thrilling in their own way with enough creativity applied. Some people may throw tantrums and insults at others just because they like the more monstrous pop-culture raptor, but there is no dichotomy between the appreciation of this fictional creature and the appreciation of its inspiration, and liking one does not automatically mean hating the other. There is room for both in my heart, and I certainly wish more dinosaur aficionados felt the same way.
My love of the Jurassic Park movies has shaped so much of who I am as a person, and I’m certainly not the only one who can say that. While the depictions of the dinosaurs in the first movie are certainly dated now, its combination of modern science and Hollywood imagination was revolutionary for its time, and its cultural reach has been so extreme that the public perception of dinosaurs in general was irrevocably changed. It is thanks to this amazing film that Velociraptor became a household name, and it wouldn’t be the last time that the franchise would enable a dinosaur genus to rise to stardom. Nowadays, every piece of entertainment media with dinosaurs in it pretty much has to reference raptors in one way or another. It’s worth noting, however, that so many of these imitators feature only shallow references to Jurassic Park that don’t take into account the artificial nature of the original movie’s prehistoric beasts in general. I’ve seen more than a few works where featherless, oversized, zombie-handed dromaeosaurs have even turned up in the Mesozoic era, because apparently, the public can’t recognize and doesn’t care that these works are unknowingly replacing a very real animal with the fanciful, exaggerated image that JP basically forced upon the public to get its messages across. And unlike with snakes, rhinos, or giant squids, we will never get to know dromaeosaurs as they truly were thanks to how separated we are from them in the timescale of Earth’s history. Maybe someday the time will come for a new era of more scientifically accurate movie dinosaurs – and in fact, I’ve already seen a few recent prehistoric media works whose raptors have at least some degree of feathering, so that turning point might actually be sooner than expected. But as it stands now, it’s no accident that the Jurassic Park Velociraptor and its iconic portrayal, from its trademark calls to its uniquely sinister appearance, have stuck with me and so many others to this day, and of all the different kinds of prehistoric monster in the franchise, it remains my personal favorite. Outdated though it may be, this mythologized, monstrous, and entirely fictional retro-raptor is every bit as deserving of its status as a horror movie icon as Dracula or the Alien. Evolution may have allowed the real animal to come to be, but it is we who made the monster.