Walker Sayen ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Monsters have always intrigued and allured us. Cultural myths about strange beasts and stories of night time terrors told around campfires are staples of the best fiction, and this is no exception in the world of cinema. Some of the earliest films ever made tell tales of ancient creatures, and monsters sprung from nightmares.
Nosferatu and Vampyr are both early silent films that explore the age old myth of the vampire. Soon Hollywood, especially Universal, started to capitalizing on the movie monster phenomenon, making their own version of the Dracula story, and transforming other mythic monsters into classic incarnations for the silver screen. The Mummy, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Wolfman, The Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein‘s monster all found new life in Hollywood. New monsters were invented for the movies too, like the Gill-Man from The Creature from the Black Lagoon, or King Kong himself. As Hollywood evolved, so did its monsters. Even more gruesome beings appeared, like the creatures in the films The Thing and The Fly. Creations from popular literature were transformed into living, breathing manifestations of terror, like Stephen King‘s Pennywise the Dancing Clown from It.
Movie monsters have risen off of the silver screen and terrified audiences, while also providing a peek into worlds filled with strange, awe inspiring, yet frightening creations. The monsters of movies have contributed to some of the scariest, most spine tingling films, from Nosferatu to Alien. But creature-features not only scare, frighten, and thrill, they also create giddy excitement through the marvelous special effects that are used to create the monsters, from stop-motion to puppetry. Part of the charm of monster movies is the old-time camp and nostalgia encapsulated in a classic King Kong or Godzilla flick.
The exploitation of camp has become part of the style. More recent creature-features, such as Tremors and Slither, have utilized this element in order to tap into what makes a monster click. However, realism is just as welcome, in order to create a believable and scary monster. Such is the case with Jurassic Park, and the newest incarnation of Godzilla hitting theaters today. But which of these beasts is the greatest, the most awe-inspiring, the most terrifying? The following, in honor of the re-emergence of Godzilla this weekend, is a list of the top five movie monsters.
5. Frankenstein’s Monster
One of the best indicators of a truly great movie monster is a sense of humanity entangled within the creature’s darkness. And that is certainly the case with Frankenstein’s monster, a trait that can be traced back to Mary Shelley’s novel that the film was based on. Even though the original 1931 Hollywood film bears only a slight resemblance to the plot of the book, what it does keep is the essence of the monster. The creature is a tormented soul, who is misunderstood and thus seen as a monster. The humanity that Boris Karloff injected into the character represents one of the best monster performances of all time. He provides the gold standard for the tragic movie monster, one who induces horror and fear because it is misunderstood, not through any true malicious intentions. The visual representation of Frankenstein’s monster, while drastically different from the description of the creature in the novel, has become one of the most iconic monster images. It is an icon known far outside of the reaches of the original film, and that is the measure of a truly great movie monster.
4. The Shark (aka. Bruce)
On the flip side of iconic monsters, is the shark from Jaws. Another mark of a classic monster is the extent to which it is without mercy, the extent to which it is a pure agent of evil. While monsters with humanity signify a great creature-feature, the polar opposite is true as well, and the giant man-eating great white shark from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is the perfect example. Its relentless battle with Quint, Hooper, and Brody was so fearsome, that Jaws (called Bruce by the crewmembers) reinvigorated the image of sharks as some of the world’s most powerful and frightening creatures. Despite being featured in only one good film (it had three mediocre sequels), the shark has still become synonymous with fear of the ocean, and is the king of the frightening creatures that lurk in its depths. The film itself was so successful at the box-office it ushered in a new age of hi-concept blockbusters. It had such a large cultural impact at the time of its release, and the shark became so entrenched in the cultural consciousness that people would avoid the beach out of fear.
Best Film(s) Featuring the Creature: Jaws
3. The Xenomorph
Another creature of pure malice and dread is the titular alien from the Alien franchise. Also known as the Xenomorph, the being, best represented in the first two installments directed by Ridley Scott and James Cameron respectively, is one of the most frightening monsters ever to have appeared on the silver screen. A monster like this–whose only intention is to kill–is scary because of its lack of motivation, beyond pure animal instinct. The creature, designed by the recently deceased H. R. Giger, is a masterwork in surrealist terror. The appearance of the monster for the first time in the chestburster scene is one of the greatest monster introductions of all time. The fact that the appearance of the creature evolves, causing the audience to never quite knows what it looks like, enhances the being’s mystique, and heightens the fear by stimulating the audiences’ imagination. The alien’s final incarnation is also one of the most iconic and frightening movie monsters in film history, due in part to the creature’s biomechanical appearance and the sexual imagery in its design. In this way it is the design of the alien, through the defining characteristics, such as the long head and the double mouth, that makes it such a scary creature
3. Godzilla (or Gojira)
And now the monster who has spawned more movies than any other, the great Godzilla (or Gojira, as he was called in the Japanese original). The original Gojira started the giant monster movie craze in Japan, and many kaiju films followed in its wake. Mothra and Gamera were japanese monsters that emerged in the shadow of the original Godzilla, andthey appeared in films alongside Godzilla. However, none of these monsters ever reached the heights of the original King of Monsters. There are nearly 30 movies in the Godzilla series’ official canon, many of them monster-mashups with other kaiju. The visual effects that fill the series are old-fashioned in the best possible way. They may not hold up as realistic today, but they still inspire admiration and appreciation. In this way, the camp of the series is part of its charm. However, with the exception of the original, and a few other installments, most of the Godzilla films are quite awful and boring. However, the monster is still the gold standard for the creature-feature because the original is so good. It not only created a tale of disaster and mayhem, but one that had social commentary on society. Godzilla was born out of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, and thus the story is a thinly veiled exploration of the atomic age. The monster represented the fears of the Japanese people regarding the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the possibility of it happening again. Monster as allegory is unique in the genre. Godzilla manages to be a scary beast, a frightening, nuclear monster, a representation of nature’s vengeance. However, at the same time the giant beast is almost a noble hero, a force against man’s follies, in some incarnations.
1. King Kong
And finally, the greatest monster of them all, King Kong. The giant ape, much like Frankenstein’s monster, is a misunderstood creature. After being taken from its natural habitat and put on display, he was transformed into a rampaging animal due to provocation. However, deep down Kong is a tragic hero, in love with a beautiful woman, yet unable to attain her, and finally brought to his doom because of the fear he unintentionally created. The story of a terrifying creature with a loving heart that is disguised underneath the shell of a monster, is reminiscent of the classic fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, as evident by the famous line: “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.” Brought to life with mesmerizing stop-motion techniques in the original, it is amazing how nuanced of a performance the filmmakers were able to give the giant gorilla (which was intended to appear to be 18 feet tall, and was in fact an 18 in. model). The 2005 remake also features impressive special effects in the form of motion-capture, and thus lends the story a different, even more realistic flavor. The original gave the character depth through the incredible animation, however the human performances paled in comparison. It is in this field that Peter Jackson’s remake improves upon the original. By enhancing the relationship between the beauty and the beast, and having the beauty learn to care for Kong, the monster’s death is made even more tragic. The original fantasy-adventure film, and the remake as well, are the pinnacles of monster cinema. Kong’s story has heart, it has thrills, and it has some of the best, most groundbreaking monster special effects. Kong is truly the King. (Side note: Also, there was a King Kong vs. Godzilla movie released in 1962. It is not very good, but is interesting for pitting the two greatest monsters of all time against each other).