While no doubt vampires, werewolves, and psychotic killers make great movie monsters, as a kid I always enjoyed the big, non-human beasties the best—especially the ones that had a penchant for destroying whole cities or otherwise terrifying a clueless population with their wanton destruction. They also appeared to be indestructible—or, at least they were until some clever scientist thought of a sure-fire way of dispatching them (or, in some cases, the military finally put enough fire-power onto it to do the job). Of course, many of these movies were pretty hokey even by the standards of their era, and the special effects in some of them leave much to be desired, but for the most part, they proved to be a great source of late-night entertainment for me and many a prepubescent teenager back in the day. While I know everyone has their own favorite monster list, I hope you will find at least a few of your favorites among my candidates as well. The top 10 best movie monsters (non-human):
10. (Tie) The Deadly Mantis
Okay, The Deadly Mantis is not a great film, but still a fun romp into the world of entomology gone awry. This time it’s the stick-like predatory insect known as the praying mantis, which for some reason has grown to 200-feet in length, that has a penchant for eating remote weather stations and Eskimos. Not to worry, however; our brave hero—in this case, Colonel Joe Parkman (played by the internationally renown actor Craig Stevens…what, you’ve never heard of him? What’re you, hiding under a rock somewhere?) crashes his plane into the thing in the fog, forcing it to slink off to find refuge in the Holland Tunnel. Of course, the first rule of being a monster is never hide out in a cave, a subway system, or a drainage ditch as sure enough, that’s where your pursuers will find you and, in this case, gas you with enough DDT to kill a—well, a giant mantis. Schlocky special effects—though state-of-the-art at the time—but a great movie to watch at 2 a.m.
10. (Tie) The Giant Ants from Them
Arguably the best of the 1950’s-era giant bug movies, this tale of giant ants rendered huge by—you guessed it—radiation from early atomic bomb tests, is both well written and well acted. (It was an early vehicle for such future Hollywood notables as James Arness—Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke fame; Fess Parker—the future Daniel Boone; and James Whitmore.) Even the ants—about the size of your average horse—are pretty well done, considering the state of special effects at the time. What makes the movie a standout is that even today the chirping sound the ants make (you usually can only hear them, not see them—until it’s too late) is spooky. Definitely a movie for people who demand real science in their science fiction, the characters go on to explain in great detail exactly what the ants are doing and what they’re going to do to stop them. No guesswork here.
Okay, one of the worst acted monster movies of all time, the dragon-like creature in this 1961 Danish-American film actually had an interesting premise and, though laughable by modern standards, a pretty cool looking monster. The idea here was that an entire creature could be regenerated from just a small piece of its tail (pulled out of the permafrost of Lapland by Danish miners) which, naturally, means that once its fully reanimated, no one has an idea how to keep it from escaping and terrorizing the good people of Denmark. Eventually, they manage to poison it, but not before blowing off one of its legs with a depth charge (this was one of the few monster movies in which each branch of Denmark’s tiny military got into the act), which naturally sinks to the bottom of the Baltic Sea to begin regenerating another monster. The coolest part of the monster is that instead of using stop motion to animate the creature, they used a puppet, which gave it an eerie sort of gait that looked very convincing—at least as far as Danish monsters go. Personally, I think this movie would be a good candidate for a remake. You listening, Steven Spielberg?
8. Boggy Creek Monster
Basically just Arkansas’ version of Bigfoot, what made this low-budget 1972 docudrama so scary was not the monster so much (which you never really see except fleetingly and usually out of focus) but the fact that it was supposedly a true story. It’s also noteworthy in that in many instances, the actual witnesses to the creature play themselves in a series of reenactments in The Legend of Boggy Creek, some of which are pretty well done for amateurs. What the movie really was famous for, however, was that it launched the film career of Sasquatch, who was to go on to star in numerous movies and docudramas ever since. It also made the docudrama format popular (remember the Blair Witch Project? Me neither.) and a staple of amateur-looking filmmaking ever since. Okay, a laughable movie by modern standards, but it scared the hell out of me when I was 14 and is the main reason I’ve never been tempted to visit Arkansas.
7. Creature from Cloverfield
I have to admit, when the movie Cloverfield first came out in 2008, I was pretty skeptical. I mean if Godzilla couldn’t destroy New York with the 1998 remake, how was some other equally nasty critter going to pull it off? I was pleasantly surprised, however, that Hollywood not only came up with a very cool monster (which, by the way, managed to look completely unlike anything seen in nature or on a Hollywood set before or since) but a compelling and semi-credible story. (Of course, I’m unusually gullible.) The most interesting thing about it was the way the entire movie was shot using a hand-held camcorder, making it look more like a scary home movie than a polished Hollywood flick. While some moviegoers complained the shaky camera work made them dizzy, I thought it a clever idea (that has since, unfortunately, been done to death). The best part of the movie, however, is that you never really get a clear picture of the critter until the very end, keeping you guessing before and after what it is. Nice touch.
In some ways just as scary as the creatures from Alien (see #1), these human-like but still very extraterrestrial critters have the benefit of being intelligent and technologically savvy, making them in many ways even more dangerous than the drone-like Aliens they occasionally do battle with. The real twist with these creatures, however, is that they’re not here to invade Earth, but to do some big game hunting. It seems the creatures like to come hundreds of light years for the opportunity to hunt humans, which they promptly dismantle and dispose of, keeping only their skulls and attached spinal column as trophies. Nice, huh? The coolest feature, however, is their invisibility suit ,which allows them to blend in with the environment so they can get close enough to get off a good shot. Not a very macho way to hunt if you ask me, but then they are hunting one of the most dangerous animals on the planet: the Arnoldus Schwarzeneggerus.
5. The Thing
Okay, somebody’s had their DNA perfectly replicated by a smart and vicious extraterrestrial creature which makes them appear to be completely human—at least until you discover who they are, at which point unfortunate things begin to happen in quick order. This 1982 John Carpenter remake of a schlocky but semi-successful 1951 thriller by the same name is perfect for people who suffer from paranoia, or people trapped in isolated Antarctic weather stations, or (preferably) both. The problem is you never really get a good look at the creature in its pure alien form as it’s always in the process of changing from one disgusting manifestation into another. The movie also ends without it being clear at all that they really killed the thing, setting it up nicely for a sequel (which for some reason, no one seems to be interested in making).
Though not my personal favorite, it’s hard to argue that Godzilla isn’t the best-known Hollywood critter in the world. First appearing in Hollywood in 1956’s Godzilla : King of the Monsters (alongside the equally scary Raymond Burr of Perry Mason fame), he has since gone on to become a worldwide pop culture icon who has starred in no less than 28 films as well as appeared in numerous video games, novels, comic books, and television series. Heck, this bad boy even has own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame! (There is no evidence he ever left his footprints at Graumans’ Chinese Theater, however.)
Originally from Japan, Godzilla – or, Gojira – (1954) was the first Godzilla movie. More philosophically-minded observers have suggested that the beast is really nothing more than one great metaphor for America, with its radioactive background and ability to level entire cities. Eventually, however, it becomes an ally of the Japanese, protecting the home islands from other various monsters (Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, China, Russia, North Korea, et al), thus turning it—and by extension, the U.S.—into a benefactor rather than a destroyer.
3. King Kong
Arguably the second most popular monster of all time, when this fifty-foot-tall ape first appeared on the silver screen back in 1933, he was a huge hit and went on to inspire several sequels and a couple of remakes. (The first, in 1976, was something of a dud, but a 2005 remake—set in 1930’s NYC to match the first film—was much improved and highly successful.) While the story of a giant biped on a lost island inhabited by goofy natives and a colony of dinosaurs was not particularly original—it was based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World— it was always fun to watch the heroine (Fay Wray in 1933, Jessica Lange in 1976, and Naomi Watts in 2005) try their best to charm the beast without getting eaten or crushed by it. In the end, it always topples to its death (is it suicide or murder?) from the top of the Empire State Building (the World Trade Center in the 1976 version), making the audience feel sorry for the beast. The big guy transcends these three films, however, making it into cartoons, video games, comic books and even being absconded by the Japanese, who had a much larger version of the beast fight Godzilla and another in which he battles a giant mechanical double of himself named Mechani-Kong.
While the great white shark from the 1975 blockbuster hit Jaws wasn’t a monster in the typical sense (oversized, radioactive, fire-breathing, etc.) he—or was it a she, we’re not told—scared an entire generation of beachgoers out of the water. While the special effects are pretty hokey by modern CGI standards, at the time it was considered very scary, although what really made the critter spooky was the fact that you only caught glimpses of it rather than saw it straight on until the very end of the movie. While this might be considered by some to be clever screenwriting, it was actually a result of the mechanical shark that had been built for the picture not working very well, forcing many of the “attack” scenes to be more implied than graphically shown—to great critical and cinematic acclaim. The downside was that the movie resulted in a frenzy of shark killings until the public could be educated about the beneficial role sharks play in ecosystems of our oceans.
1. Creature from Alien
What could be better than a creature that crams embryos down your throat which burst out of your chest when they come to term and then have the baby get big enough in a few days that it can carry you off to its lair? Welcome to the world of Alien and the nightmarish creation of noted Swiss artist H.R. Geiger, who designed the bizarre and still-scary-after-all-this-time creature for this highly successful franchise. (The alien creature has appeared in no less than six films.) Perhaps its coolest feature is its double articulating jaw (sort of a mouth within a mouth) that oozes slime and snaps open and shut with the speed of light. Oh, and you especially don’t want to get the queen alien angry; she has some major and deep-seated anger issues that manifest themselves in particularly gruesome ways (especially if you’re an android). Easily one of the coolest space monsters ever devised.
Honorable Mentions: There are lots of very cool beasties that didn’t make it onto this list but are worthy of mention. They are, in no particular order: the T-Rexes from the Jurassic Park movies, the creatures from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Tarantula (1955) 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) and, of course, the always fun-loving Graboids from the Tremors series. Great fun, one and all. Now get back in your cages!