Special: Monster Legacy’s Monstrous Hundred — Part 1
Back in 2002, I was a small kid watching Free Willie on a local channel. During an ad intermission, a trailer was broadcast for what was coming afterwards. It didn’t have a hard time selling it to my young eyes — “monsters from beneath the Earth! Now they’re back, badder and hungrier!” were all the words I needed to hear. The film was Tremors 2: Aftershocks and it may very well be the reason Monster Legacy has been and continues to be a thing since 2011.
Beforehand, I had seen films like Men in Black, the 1998 Godzilla, and Dragonheart, but I had never gone beyond aliens, dragons and giant lizards. It was Tremors 2 that made me realize that yes, monsters were my thing, so I began looking everywhere for more of that. Throughout the years I watched an embarrassing amount of creature features — some great, some insipid, some just downright bad.
Say you’ve just seen a creature film and made the same realization, or you’re already an enthusiast of this long-lasting genre and want to watch more. Quoting the evergreen Todd Chavez, “has this ever happened to you?” If the answer is yes, congratulations! Here’s my response. As a break from the norm, I’ve compiled a monstrous hundred of monster movies that are iconic, essential to the genre, or in any way worth seeing — be it for their special effects work, or their whimsical nature, or all of those things. That’s because I wanted to give space to more movies than the usual suspects; make no mistake, this list goes from high-note masterpieces to pieces of forgotten schlock — the only connective tissue is, of course, monsters!
This list was compiled with the Monster Legacy arbitrary criteria, so, for example, you won’t find most versions of Dracula or Frankenstein and whatnot, nor films whose plots include creatures but don’t revolve around them. The original Frankenstein novel is a fundamental forefather of most elements found in creature films, but Frankenstein’s monster is entirely made of human parts into a still human — though disfigured — form. The same goes for original The Lost World, which launched the idea of a large creature rampaging through a city, but the one doing so is a proposed — nowadays dated, of course — reconstruction of a dinosaur. The Lord of the Rings, Dune, Star Wars, This Island Earth, and so forth have beautiful creatures, but their plots do not revolve around them, so you won’t see them here.
With the talk done, here be monsters.
King Kong (1933)
Taking some of The Lost World (1925)’s DNA — namely the concept of a giant animal removed from its homeland and forced into a stranger place — by way of The Beauty and the Beast, King Kong set many precedents for the century of creature films to come, and inspired more filmmakers than anyone’s willing to admit.
The Wolf Man (1941)
Adequately slow-paced despite its short length, this Universal classic unfolds like a greek tragedy, with iconic performances and make-up effects. Worth seeing if only to see where the cinematic werewolf started, and how it influenced a vast number of films to come.
The Thing from Another World (1951)
Responsible — along with Beast — for the monster boom of the 50s and seminal in its methods of providing suspense. The tracking system detecting the creature with a constant sound — as well as the isolated setting — would be lifted by Alien and several other pictures to come. All of that more than makes up for the ‘cabbage-Frankenstein’ look to the titular Thing.
The Beast From 20.000 Fathoms (1953)
Little-remembered nowadays and devoid of any cinematic continuation, Beast can boast a legacy greater than any sequel: taking cues from the 1942 Superman cartoon The Arctic Giant, it was the first film to pitch the idea of the atomic age unleashing a monster upon mankind — a concept that would become key to the monster boom of the 50s. It is also Ray Harryhausen’s first film credit: although he had been Willis O’brien’s protegé up to that point, he handled Beast all by himself. His stop-motion work is here seen at full force — in very ambitious sequences for their time — baptizing him as one of the titans of creature effects.
War of the Worlds (1953)
This is the quintessential alien invasion film, with innovative, scale-defying alien saucers, and one of the most bizarre alien designs committed to film. Said creature is also noteworthy for being the first ever example of a monster being brought to life with a suit, a technique previously only used to make gorillas. Not in case, it was brought to creepy and organic life by Charles Gemora. Look out for those pulsating veins and expanding lungs!
It Came From Outer Space (1953)
Early on during the 50s boom, this film is noteworthy for portraying a subversion of the popular trope of alien invaders. Where most contemporary films had their aliens either as invading civilizations or singular threats, this one sports a subversion of the trope – the monstrous-looking alien is actually a non-malicious explorer.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
The last of the ‘Universal’ classics — and the most monstrous one. Boasting a hauntingly realistic Gillman for its time, Creature is an expertly-crafted, suspenseful horror tale, touching upon a primeval sense of sexuality. You may have noticed the trend this film set — those impressive movie posters portraying a monstrous character carrying a woman in its arms. Like King Kong, The Gillman can be seen as an expression of subconscious sexuality, the one pulsating beast roaming beneath the surface of the mind. Of course, its love story could not meet anything but a tragic end — the monster, an outcast of society and not controlled by its rules, is drawn away and seemingly killed.
Where Beast postulated the byproduct of atomic testing as a single, overwhelming entity, THEM! turns the singular into a plural: a horde of mutated ants that could spread and eradicate mankind, giving a very frightening apocalyptic potential to its narrative. THEM! is also the pioneer of the all-too-popular trope of giant bugs in films, which flourished in the following decades.
Taking more than one cue from Beast, Godzilla becomes its own monster by transforming the titular creature into a literal victim of the atomic bomb. Godzilla is a ghost of the atomic nightmare coming back to haunt Japan like a gigantic oni or dragon from the deep, its appearance inspired by the haunting ‘ant-walking alligators’ — disfigured and short-lived survivors of the 1945 bombings. More than that, Godzilla became the forefather of a horde of Japanese science-fiction films to follow, baptized as Tokusatsu (‘special effects’ in Japanese).
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Although popularly recognized as a metaphor for the Communist paranoia running wild during the days of the Cold War, Invasion reaches much deeper in the subconscious, bringing terrifying reality to the old human fear of not being able to trust anybody around you.
One of the first spawns of Godzilla‘s resounding success and penned by the same director. Rodan is the tragic tale of a couple of animals that awaken out of time in a world that doesn’t recognize them and ultimately spells their doom: another effort in trying to express the destructive effect of humankind on nature. This is conveyed extremely well at the end of the film where the surviving Rodan, realizing its only mate has died, decides to dive into the lava of an erupting volcano to end its own suffering, much like the Shakespearean Romeo.
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
Continuing with tragic monster characters, Miles portrays a creature that, much like King Kong, is forced onto a new context, although the Ymir experiences this from its very birth. Scared, misunderstood and hunted down, the monster rampages through Rome before being killed by the efforts of the army. Like Beast, the Ymir dies in a long and dramatic sequence, a set-up that would become a signature of Harryhausen’s animation — only highlighted by the deliberately human gestures of the dying creature.
Night of the Demon (1957)
One of the most expertly-crafted folkloristic horror films to date, Night boasts a forebonding, slow-paced narrative that relies on the immortal power of suggestion. It shows the quiet and inevitable descent into madness of its main character — in a never-ending war between rational and irrational.
The Monster that Challenged the World (1957)
One of the better entries in the 50s monster boom, especially noteworthy for its creature design: the abyssal mollusk’s head is reminiscent of a human skull, making the viewer subconsciously associate the monster with death itself. While this would become a relatively common trope after Alien, in the 50s it was far before its time.
The Blob (1958)
Another quintessential film, pitting a very young Steve McQueen and a group of 50s teenagers against a shapeless and nameless, unknowable menace consuming everyone in the path of its never-quenching hunger. The Blob spawned countless remakes and sequels, but the original always keeps its own and unique charm.
The Fly (1958)
A Frankenstein-like tale where the scientist and its creation are made into one. The Fly may be dated by its “science going too far” way of thinking, but is effective in the portrayal of its tragic story, and can only be lauded for inspiring David Cronenberg’s masterpiece about three decades later.
It! The Terror Beyond Space (1958)
This film is worth seeing if only to witness one of the fundamental ancestors of Alien, taking the old age ‘haunted castle’ horror set-up with a sci-fi spin: the castle is a spaceship, and the ghost is an alien monster.
Fiend Without a Face (1958)
A completely outlandish premise combined with equally outlandish creatures in the shape of crawling brains with stalks, Fiend is much more gory than you would think the 50s post-code censors would allow. After seeing it, you may also boast that you indeed know what the brain creature in Looney Tunes Back in Action is a reference to.
The Giant Behemoth (1959)
A derivate of Beast, with effects ironically crafted by Harryhausen’s mentor — Willis O’Brien. Probably the least memorable of Eugene Lourie’s ‘dinosaur trilogy’, but still embued with retro charm.
Although it does include plot elements relating to the nuclear bomb, and is part of the ‘nature-destroying mankind’ conduit, Mothra harkens back to Japanese folklore and mysticism much more than the contemporary Godzilla, Rodan and others do. A very poetic film and creature.
Concluding Eugene Lourie’s ‘dinosaur’ trilogy (the other two representatives being Beast and Behemoth), Gorgo takes inspiration from King Kong — again, a creature forced onto a new context, but unlike Kong (and more like Grendel) the little Gorgo is a baby, and it is only a matter of time before its rampaging mother tears London apart to reunite with its spawn. Going against the tradition of its predecessors, Gorgo also ends its story on an heartwarming note: the mother and its baby reunite, and with no further desire to destroy, they depart to the seas.
Day of the Triffids (1962)
An interesting British take on alien invasion films, spinning its premise with the innovative elements from the novel of the same name it is based on, although it ends in a convenient, War of the Worlds-type scenario.
King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962)
This script may have known a bit too well of the gimmicky nature of its premise, and rightfully decides to play the whole story as a large scale farce. Also noteworthy for being the first film where Godzilla begins transitioning into a more children-oriented series, seeing as the two titular beasts’ designs were deliberately changed to appeal to younger audiences.
Brilliantly subversive, this Honda-signed film takes the viewer in a hallucinatory journey of paranoia and psychosis. Matango takes the best advantage out of the tools of science-fiction: speaking of the nature of humankind through the lens of abstract imagination.
Mothra Vs. Godzilla (1964)
A conflict between Japan’s folklore and mysticism (Mothra) and the grief and echoes of the atomic nightmare (Godzilla) ending in the former’s destruction, but also rebirth. A nicely packaged Tokusatsu film and one of the better examples of the famous neverending series.
Godzilla spawned a series of imitators, among which Gamera stands out for its unusual benevolent nature and inherently absurd powers. While the series would peak in the 90s, the original film is an interesting piece of out-of-time filmmaking.
War of the Gargantuas (1966)
An often-overlooked Toho classic. Peculiar in its relentless cruelty and violence, it boasts some extremely effective horror imagery, all packaged in a narrative dealing with themes like nature against nurture and the duality of the self.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Simply put, one of the purest science-fiction stories ever told, with a sober tone and photography only 60s British sci-fi could deliver. Like Invasion, it relies on an unfolding narrative, the power of suggestion and implied scope to marvelous results. The creatures and effects have never been the strong point of it, of course, but the storytelling and atmosphere are thoroughly engaging beginning to end.
Destroy all Monsters (1968)
The Showa era was Godzilla at its most extravagant, and this film is no exception. Alien invaders in the shape of aluminium-clad women, Ghidorah at their command (again), monsters rampaging throughout the entire world, and a battle royale at the end. Fantastic!
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
Cowboys and stop-motion dinosaurs by Ray Harryhausen clash in this bizarre hybrid between the King Kong-type narrative and an old-fashioned western. Most beautifully, the film ends with the beast’s demise, and the filmmaker’s eye can only focus on a small boy’s face as a tear falls on his cheek, pained at the death of a wonder of nature.
Next: Part 2
Posted on 22/02/2020, in Essays, Monster Legacy, Monster Legacy Specials, Movie Monsters and tagged Blob, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Fiend without a face, Gamera, Gillman, Godzilla, Gorgo, Gwangi, Harryhausen, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, King Kong, Monstrous Hundred, Mothra, Night of the Demon, Quatermass, Rhedosaurus, The Fly, The Thing, The War of the Worlds, THEM!, Toho, Werewolf, Wolfman, Ymir. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.
*APPLAUSE* This is one of the best articles here! Love it! Great choice of Monster history, *thumbs up* all my favorite too!
Thank you for the kind words! Stay tuned for the last two parts this week.