I was thinking about this topic before I started this series. It came up for me as I was watching on TV one of the films I’m going to mention in a bit. It was one of my favorite monster movies, and I realized I could only think of two others that I genuinely think are better.
(Incidentally, this is #19 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
Now, it’s worth saying here that I make a fair amount of distinction between a “Monster Movie” and a “Horror Movie”, even though there’s obviously a fair amount of overlap between the two. But in general I think monster movies should have an element of adventure in them, which is something that “horror” movies often lack. In a monster movie, the focus is often on trying to overcome odds and survive, while in a horror movie, the focus is often on watching the unstoppable threat (be it a monster or otherwise) victimize people.
I usually quite dislike horror movies, but I can enjoy a good monster movie.
So, what are my favorites?
Frankenstein & Bride of Frankenstein (1931 & 1935 – both directed by James Whale)
Monster: “The Monster” (sometimes referred to as “Frankenstein”) and “The Monster’s Mate”, played by Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester
As a kid I went through a period of watching the old Universal horror / monster movies, and I think these two, the first two Frankenstein pictures, were the most enduring. There are a number of other sequels (including several where the various monsters start appearing together, basically inventing the “shared cinematic universe” concept long before Marvel came long) but they ended up more campy. Both of the first two movies have an air of authenticity about them which the others didn’t appear to be aspiring toward. And they certainly created some iconic monsters. Frankenstein’s Monster is really nothing like the character from the book, yet Boris Karloff’s version is the one that has endured in the mind of audiences for decades, and Elsa Lanchester’s bride has less than five minutes of screen time and yet is still one of the more memorable parts of what was a very good sequel.
Mimic (1997 – directed by Guillermo del Toro)
Monster: “Judas”, a strain of genetically designed insects
Mimic is an effectively creepy little movie starring Mira Sorvino as a scientist who helped create a breed of aggressive insects in order to wipe out roaches that were carrying a deadly disease. Her efforts succeeded but of course the engineered creatures proved more resilient then originally thought, and quickly evolved into man-sized capable of imitating their prey, aka human beings. This is not nearly as ridiculous in the movie as it sounds here. Mimic doesn’t exactly break new ground but does do it’s job well. A lot of the coolness of the film comes from co-star Jeremy Northam, who brings a lot of class to the role of Mira Sorvino’s husband Peter.
Pacific Rim (2013 – directed by Guillermo del Toro, again!)
Monster: Kaiju, or gigantic sea creatures
Because I’m not really a fan of Godzilla, I look to Pacific Rim as my example of a movie featuring monstrous creatures rising out of the ocean and tromping across world cities, which is probably considered a bit philistine by some fans. In any case, I enjoy Pacific Rim in all its ridiculous glory, including its success in taking the concepts popularized by Japanese monster movies and making them easily accessible for these Western eyes.
Super-8 (2011 – directed by J.J. Abrams)
Monster: Some alien killer thing
With this post, I was asked to list movies that might not be that good but have interesting monsters. I’m afraid, though, that I can’t really think of anything like that. But here, with Super-8, we have a movie that’s pretty good featuring a monster that is sort of forgettable. Really, I have almost completely forgotten anything about it, except that it runs around in a movie that is basically ET if it had been made as a horror movie. A group of young kids find themselves on an adventure of a lifetime as they try to understand what the monster that has become trapped in their town actually wants, and how to both survive its presence and help it escape. Making it particularly fun is that they are in the middle of making a zombie movie when all this happens, and over the end credits we actually get to see the movie they’ve made.
So, those were all the runners-up. Now let’s get on to the top tier monster movies – my three favorite such films, counting down from 3 to 1.
So, top Monster Movie #3
Tremors (1990 – directed by Ron Underwood)
Monster: “Graboids” – giant subterranean worms with multiple tongues that are like giant snakes
Tremors is the film I was talking about at the beginning of the post. It really is just a cheesy monster movie from the 1990’s, but is so well constructed and so satisfying in its conclusion that it has really earned its spot in my heart as one of the best monster movies I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely my favorite monster “b-movie”, which doesn’t have any aspirations to be more than what it is: a scary, action-comedy Western-themed monster-movie. The characters are great and played by a good cast (Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Michael Gross, Reba McIntyre, etc), the situations are gripping, and movie remains tense, engaging, and best of all, fun, until the last moments.
So, top Monster Movie #2
Aliens (1986 – directed by James Cameron)
Monster: Xenomorphs. Lots and lots of them.
In some ways, I’d have to say that I prefer Tremors, but when I was just trying to think if there were any monster movies that were better, I have to concede that Aliens fits the bill. It’s just a much bigger project, a much more thorough film. If you don’t know, Aliens is the stakes-raising sequel to Alien, which is more of a horror classic about an unstoppable monster. Aliens still has the horror elements, but they are out-matched by the rip-roaring adventure of watching a platoon of marines, armed to the teeth with machine guns and flame throwers, waging war against an endless population of these creatures. Of course, the humans are hopelessly outmatched, except for the smarts and courage of the civilian Ripley, who as I mentioned last time is one of the best action hero leads ever, let alone one of the best female ones. Sigourney Weaver rightly was nominated for an Oscar in the role, and the supporting cast, including Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen, all bring a lot of life to their characters. The movie is a visceral experience, where we are swept up in every loss and every victory. It’s fully satisfying, in a way that its sequels never were.
So, top Monster Movie #1
Jaws (1976 – directed by Steven Spielberg)
Monster: A great white shark.
Speaking of movies that were better than all of its sequels, we come to Jaws, the greatest movie ever. In addition to great directing that definitely brings some jump-out-of-your-seats sort of scares, what makes Jaws work is something that is also true about all the truly great monster movies, and that is a real commitment to tell an interesting story about people. Lesser movies will use the characters as just a colorful array of victims, but in a movie like Jaws, the monster is the catalyst for the story, but it’s not the star of the story. So here we have three characters all played by top-notch actors: Roy Scheider’s Brody, Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper, and Robert Shaw’s Quint. The film isolates these three men from the rest of the world for the entire second half of the movie, creating a tight arena for their duel with the shark. The film also highlights the characters in the first half: unlike many such films, the tension of the story comes not through watching people we know being killed off, but in the reaction of the main character–local sheriff Martin Brody–to the horror of what is happening to his town. Any way you cut it, Jaws is pretty much a masterpiece, and the best monster movie I’ve ever seen.
Considered & Rejected: The few Godzilla films I have seen, which includes Godzilla vs. Megalon and the relatively recent Godzilla: Final Wars. Also, Cat People from 1942 (which I don’t really remember, but was certainly moody and atmospheric), Deep Blue Sea, Jurassic Park and its sequels, Little Shop of Horrors, Anaconda, Reign of Fire, The Thing from Another World (though I do like Howard Hawk’s directorial style), and the only version of King Kong I have ever seen all the way through (the 1970’s one with Jeff Bridges). I remember enjoying what parts of Them! that I’ve seen (about giant ants), but I don’t really recall it well enough to recommend it. I also have a vague sense of watching Tarantula as a kid, but again not well enough to recall it. Troll Hunter from Norway is pretty good, but not a favorite. I also reject Alien on the grounds that it is more of a horror film than a monster movie.
Full Disclosure: Lots of Godzilla and King Kong films I’ve never seen. I’ve also never seen Cloverfield and lots of others.
Bonus: Maybe the silliest monster movie I’ve seen (and there are a lot of contenders for this) would be Night of the Lepus, a movie about giant mutated murderous bunny rabbits, featuring Janet Leigh and DeForest Kelly, of all people. The movie provoked a massive argument between my brother and me about whether it was believable that rabbits would turn carnivorous just because they mutated to giant size.