Top 5 Satisfying Monsters in Cinema
Recently, I shelled out $10.50 to go see the new J.J. Abrahams’ Amblin tribute Super 8. I could go into a long diatribe about my thoughts on the film (which could more or less be summed up as: first half good, second half bad), but instead I’d like focus on the most glaring issue I had with this Spielbergian nostalgiafest: if you are going to make a monster movie, then that monster better be pretty damned memorable. And so far Mr. Abrahams’ is 0 for 2 in this category. Both in this film and in 2008’s Cloverfield, which he produced, a monster is the main catalyst of the story. Throughout the films we see glimpses of it and get plenty of over-the-top reaction shots of other people witnessing it, so we have a build-up in our imaginations that these creatures are going to be something spectacularly horrific. However, in both of these films, the ball has been unimpressively dropped. In Cloverfield the monster turns out to be this weird half-baked, dehydrated, albino mess that looks like an 8 year old made it out of modeling clay. At least that one was kind of original in its design, but in the case of Super 8, we are left with an amalgamation of rehashed imagery from past alien/creature features. I would be hard-pressed to find very many people who could accurately describe it in any detail even a couple hours after seeing the film– it is that unmemorable. I have heard the case been stated that films like the ones that Abrahams produces are more about the journey then the destination. The anticipation is where the real joy lies, and the creature itself is merely an afterthought. While I agree that the tension leading up to the reveal of a creature that you have seen glimpses and flashes of is a quintessential part of a solid monster movie, the reveal had better be worth the wait. Without a properly memorable creature at the end of the journey, I can’t help but feel somewhat cheated. This got me thinking of which monsters throughout cinematic history have really brought the goods. The main criteria that I wanted to include is that the monster need to be hinted at and/or teased through at least part of the movie. There needs to be some type of build up to a reveal. Below is a list of 5 films that have creatures that are well worth the price of admission. (I have already tackled some films that could easily make this list in past subjects like Top 5 Practical Films and Top 5 Body Horror Films.)
5. The Trolls – Trolljegeren (The Troll Hunter) (2010) – André Øvredal & The Monster – Gwoemul (The Host) (2006) – Bong Joon-ho
I grouped these two films together because they have a few things in common. They are both recent foreign films, but they are also the only two films on this list that utilize computer graphics into their creatures. It is no secret that I am a huge fan of practical effects. As I have stated in previous posts, it is hard for a monster in a film to be memorable when it is CGI. Both of these movies do a solid job creating creatures that are more than believable. In Troll Hunter, we spend time in the mountains of Norway with a menagerie of trolls. Even though the viewer knows that they are watching a fictional documentary, we begin to believe in it. As viewers, we are all fully aware that there is no such thing as a troll, but as in any great monster film, we simply don’t care. Instead we let ourselves get lost in a world where these creatures get more grotesque and enormous as we get deeper into the nether regions of the Scandinavian wasteland. However, before we get to see said creatures, we witness their aftermath. Trampled trees, dead animals and fists full of slime lead the way until we finally start to get brief glimpses. And by that time, I, for one, had bought fully into the existence of these things, at least in the context of the world I was seeing on screen.
As in the previous film, in the Host we encounter the monster as the protagonists on screen do. We too are trying to grasp what exactly we are seeing as the people in the film are. Set in a modern day Korean metropolis, the film revolves around a family dealing with the loss of their youngest member at the hands of an aquatic behemoth. Created by the brilliant, and unfortunately now defunct San Francisco graphics house the Orphanage, the Host was the first example for me of an effective CGI monster. The film has a breathtaking sequence where, on a picture perfect sunny day, an entire population witnesses a monster dropping off of a bridge and proceeding to terrorize them. Unlike most films that feature predominately computer engineered creatures, this one does not rely on fast editing and shaky camera work to hide the flaws in the designs. Instead, we get beautiful slow motion shots that would make Sergio Leone proud.
4. The Creature – The Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) – Richard W. Haines & Lloyd Kaufman
The Class of Nuke ‘Em High comes from the delinquent minds behind the low budget classics such as the Toxic Avenger, Tromeo & Juliet and Terror Firmer. Lloyd Kaufman & Co. at Troma Studios have made an art out of making more of less, and never have they been more effective than with this gem from 1986. The element that puts this film on this list is that of surprise. The surprise of how well the monster looks in comparison to the rest of this campy classic. Given the budget, sets and quality of acting, you’d assume that the creature would just be a guy in a cheesy costume. And while that is case, it is one impressive and freaky looking cheesy costume. The film is a somewhat hybrid of the classic nuclear scare horror films of the 50’s and the post-punk youth-gone-wild films of the late 70’s/early 80’s. The honor students of Troma High are being transformed into bejeweled degenerates as a reaction to run off from the nearby power plant. Eventual tainted pot impregnates one of the students (that is the best way to describe it) and she “gives birth” to a demonic tadpole that will eventually turn into the aforementioned monster. If you are looking for a campy 80’s monster movie that delivers the “goods”, then look no further.
3. The Graboids - Tremors (1990) – Ron Underwood
This and Child’s Play were the first two films I remember scaring me (and the latter was just because I owned a My Little Buddy toy at the time). For those impoverished souls who have not had the privilege of seeing this darling, I highly recommend you remedy that. The story takes place in a small mining settlement, appropriately named Perfection. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward (a buddy combo that unfortunately has not been revisited) play a couple of local handymen that start to notice that their townsfolk are starting to get picked off one by one in more and more creative ways. By the time they figure out that giant underground prehistoric worms are the culprits, the town is surrounded and they must fight their way out with dynamite and over acting. As the sequels, the TV series and a recent made for TV ripoff (I would highly not recommend Mongolian Death Worm), the realm of oversized worms (and snakes for that matter) should be left to the practical effects wizards. The creatures are so impressive (though strangely look nothing like the one on the poster) that you may find yourself pausing the movie at times just to take it all in. This movie also did to large open spaces what Jaws did to water. This is like Arachnophobia for agoraphobics.
2. The Creature - The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – Jack Arnold
The youngest of the classic Universal Monsters, the Creature was a real game changer. All of his predecessors were monsters that were simply actors in make up. It was obvious that Bela Lugosi was Dracula, you could see Lon Chaney Jr. behind the fur as the Wolfman and Boris Karloff’s signature facial features shown through the bandages of the Mummy and the bolts of Frankenstein. But no one in 50’s America could be able to point Ben Chapmen out of a lineup after seeing him as the Creature. As one of the first examples of a full body suit, the Creature was one of the first times that an audience had seen a monster without a human face behind it. This created a sense of fear and intrigue that would pave the way for my number one over 20 years later. Unfortunately, like many monster films, the Creature was featured predominately on the poster, so the surprise is ruined for the movie goers. I would’ve loved to have had the chance to see this film without the spoiler. Jack Arnold does such a perfect job hinting and teasing with glimpse of the Creature, that by the time it is pulsating and lunging towards the camera, the audiences of the 50’s much have been wetting their pleated little britches.
1. The Alien - Alien (1979) – Ridley Scott
With this blog I try and pride myself in bringing to light titles that are outside of the cinematic populace. I do my best to steer clear of films that could be found on AFI lists or in IMDB’s top 100. This is not meant as a form of elitism, but rather to give the films that may have just as much merit as those more well known a chance to have a larger audience (even if that is just an audience of one or two). That said, there are times and subjects where I can’t ignore a movie that deserves all the praise it can get. If you look on most top monster lists, you will find my number 1. To not include Alien on this list would be a serious blow to my integrity. From the pacing, to the lighting, to the score, to the sets, everything about the film is claustrophobic and terrifying, and that is well before we even see the alien itself. There are very few instances in the horror/sci fi cinematic world when something comes along that is original and changes everything after it, Alien is one of the those cases. Ever since this particular alien graced the screen, every alien since has in some way resembled it (included the unoriginal one in Super 8 that inspired this list).
Monster in My Closet - (1986) – Bob Dahlin
Before there was Snakes on a Plane there was another ingenious descriptive titled movie Monster in My Closet. With a monster that looks like a combination of the Rancor from Return of the Jedi, the alien from Alien and a naked mole rat, this tongue-in-cheek comedy/horror from 1986 does a pretty reasonable job lampooning a lot of typical cliches that you will find in a monster movie. At least I think that was their intent. There is a good possibility that the producers just made a bad monster movie and made it funny in post.