In honor of Pacific Rim being released on Blu-ray and DVD, what better way to celebrate during this Halloween season with another giant monster movie or two? Monsters have long been a staple in stories throughout the ages, and the history of cinema has its share of horrific beasties wreaking havoc for our enjoyment. The following list is in no particular order, and is by no means comprehensive. Just a few suggestions for your viewing pleasure. So grab some popcorn, sit back, and hope you enjoy!
Pacific Rim (2013)
With it being newly released for home viewing, it just makes sense to place it at the beginning of our list. Director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) did a fantastic job at breathing new life into the giant robot versus giant monster genre, as massive creatures called Kaiju come forth from a rift on the ocean floor, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Humans decide to fight back with giants of their own. The Jaegers, towering robots controlled by two pilots who link together, take on the monsters in some spectacular and well staged battles. It’s all a lot of fun, and played with just enough seriousness by its cast (which includes Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam and Idris Elba from Prometheus) to make it work. And really, what could be better than giant robots beating on giant monsters?
The Host (2006)
This nifty film from South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, who also co-wrote the screenplay, boasts some terrific visual effects and a great mix of drama, humor, and horror. The monster is the result of reckless chemical dumping from a U.S. military base into the Han River which runs through the city of Seoul. As it grows and begins attacking, one family gets caught up in the chaos, with one child being taken by the creature and her aunt, who also happens to be an archery medalist (played by Doona Bae, Cloud Atlas), goes to her rescue with the aid of her father and two brothers. The movie proceeds at a nice pace, with some great action and some very suspenseful moments. Well worth a look.
Eight Legged Freaks (2002)
Let’s face it. Spiders are creepy. With their eight little eyes and fangs, they just naturally make many ill at ease. So they’re a perfect movie monster, and have had their share of screen time, from Tarantula (1955), featuring Leo G. Carroll and an uncredited Clint Eastwood, to 1990’s Arachnophobia starring Jeff Daniels. In 2002, Dean Devlin, one of the minds behind such hits as Independence Day and Stargate, teamed with director Ellory Elkayem in his feature debut to bring to the screen a story of a fading mining town that finds itself beset by a horde of large, hungry arachnids. A lot of it was played for laughs, with some clever sound effects coming from the spiders themselves, but it also had a lot of exciting action scenes and generated some suspense. The cast was terrific, featuring David Arquette (Scream), Kari Wuhrer (Anaconda), Doug E. Doug (Cool Runnings) and a young Scarlett Johansson (perhaps she was fated to play Black Widow in The Avengers), as were the special effects that brought to life a wide variety of giant spiders, each with their own look, behavior, and even personality. It’s a B-movie that successfully spoofs B-movies, and it’s probably the most fun you’ll have watching large arachnids tear up a town.
Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward star as two down on their luck handymen trying to escape the doldrums of the small town of Perfection when a seismologist student named Rhonda (Finn Carter) arrives to do some field work. Her instruments detect seismic activity (the tremors of the title), and they soon learn the cause- giant worm-like creatures with multiple snake-like tongues that grab hold of their victims, earning the beasties the nickname “graboid” from the local townspeople. It may sound ridiculous, and yet director Ron Underwood (who later went on to helm City Slickers and the 1998 remake of Mighty Joe Young) along with writers S.S. Wilson (Short Circuit) and Brent Maddock make it all work, delivering some nice thrills along with a healthy dose of comedy. The cast sells the movie well, and along with Ward, Bacon, and Carter features Michael Gross (of the TV series Family Ties) and country singer Reba McEntire as husband and wife survivalists with a hefty arsenal. The creature effects were designed by former Stan Winston Studio member Tom Woodruff Jr., who later went on to design creatures for the two Aliens vs. Predator films as well as the upcoming release Ender’s Game.
The Thing (1982)
1951’s The Thing From Another World is generally considered to be a classic among sci-fi fans, but it strayed a little bit from the source material, a short story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. In 1982 horror maestro John Carpenter (Halloween, The Fog) decided to remake the classic, but use more elements from the original short story. With Rob Bottin (The Howling) doing the special effects and an hypnotic musical score by Ennio Morricone, Carpenter succeeded in creating an excellent shape shifting creature feature that used its isolated setting (a base in Antarctica) to its advantage, and created a feeling of paranoia and tension among the men stationed there. Kurt Russell delivered one of his best performances as helicopter pilot R. J. MacReady, who needs to identify the alien before it can use its mimicry to escape off base. The creature designs were imaginative and grotesque, incorporating the forms of its victims with other worldly anatomy. The movie had just the right amount of humor to help lighten slightly its dark and bleak tone. While the influences of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror masterpiece Alien (1979) could plainly be seen, Carpenter still managed to craft an alien saga all his own. A prequel was made bearing the same name in 2011, and while matching the look fairly well, never completely captured the sense of paranoia and hopelessness of Carpenter’s film. One of the horror director’s best.
Deep Rising (1998)
Deep Rising was a mixture of genres, starting off as more of a heist movie as an unscrupulous captain played by Treat Williams ferries a group of mercenaries out to a state of the art luxury liner with the sole intent of looting the ship. Things don’t quite go as planned, for when they arrive on-board the Argonautica they find the ship mostly deserted, save for the captain (Derrick O’Connor), a representative of the cruise line (Anthony Heald), and a mysterious woman (Famke Janssen). Soon they are under attack by creatures with deadly tentacles, and the mercenaries now need to fight for their lives to escape the ship. It’s ridiculous and cliched at times, but it’s completely fun. Director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) moves things along at a fast pace, and Williams’ character of Finnegan is always quick with a quip, as is his side-kick mechanic Joey, played excellently by Kevin J. O’Connor (The Mummy, Van Helsing). The monster was well done, and its full form isn’t shown until the explosive climax. A thrill ride from start to finish.
Monsters is one of the more low key entries on this list. While it has its moments, director Gareth Edwards (of the next Godzilla movie, scheduled for release in 2014) had to work within his means as the film had a relatively low budget (it only cost an estimated 800,000 dollars US to make), so he had to be clever with his shots. The creatures are never completely shown, yet Edwards does a great job conveying their massive size. The movie takes place six years after an alien invasion of Earth. Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is a cynical journalist stuck in Mexico, which has been quarantined due to the rise of a new life form. He meets tourist Samantha (Whitney Able), whom he has been hired to escort back to the US border to be with her family and fiancee. The pair strike up an uneasy friendship which grows over the course of their travels which places them in danger from not only the areas of destruction they come across but military forces and the creatures as well. The cast does a nice job, making the characters feel like real people in a real situation. Like I said, it’s more low key than other entries on this list, but it’s done intelligently and keeps your interest with an engaging story.
After the Blair Witch Project caught audiences’ attention with its gimmick of being recorded on a handheld device it was only natural imitators would spawn in its wake. Most however were content to stay on a relatively small scale, focusing on hauntings and the like. Producer J. J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), director Matt Reeves (Let Me In), and writer Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) decided instead to go big. Trailers caught your attention with a scene of the Statue of Liberty’s head being tossed down a Manhattan street while military forces battled an unseen enemy. Following five friends over the course of the evening, the movie had its share of set pieces, including some creepier moments when the group is trying to escape along a subway tunnel. The final reveal of the creature was done well, and the characters were engaging enough to make them more than just fodder for the rampaging monster. One of the better movies done in the fake documentary style, it moved along at a nice pace once you got past the first twenty minutes or so.
The use of the atomic bomb by the United States at the end of World War Two ushered in a new era, that of the atomic age. With this new age came a host of all new fears, as no one knew what the effects of the radiation released by an atomic explosion would be. Hollywood had the answer in the form of gigantic mutants, spawned by the radioactive blasts. Ordinary creatures grew to incredible size, bringing death and destruction in their wake. You had giant spiders (Tarantula, Earth vs. the Spider), giant grasshoppers (Beginning of the End), giant soldiers (The Amazing Colossal Man), and even giant rabbits (Night of the Lepus). Most made for entertaining B-movie fare, and one of the better ones was the 1954 release Them!, which dealt with giant ants. The cast was a bit better than most films of its type, featuring the likes of James Whitmore (Battleground, The Asphalt Jungle), Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street), James Arness (The Thing from Another World), and Fess Parker (who would go on to play Davy Crockett in the Disney TV series). The action and suspense were maintained throughout the film, though nowadays the special effects may seem rather laughable by today’s standards, but they worked in the context of the film and were highlighted by some terrific sound effects. A classic that’s still worth a look.
The Blob (1958, 1988)
Monsters that have a solid form can be difficult enough to deal with, but what about one that’s basically an oozing glob of biological jelly? That was the dilemma facing the citizens of a small town in both versions of The Blob. A meteor crash lands on Earth, and out of it comes a creature that envelops and digests everything it comes in contact with. The 1958 version is notable for starring a young Steve McQueen, who would go on to star in such notable movies as Bullitt, The Great Escape, Papillon, and The Getaway. It drew the sides in the town along predictable lines, with teenagers against the adults. The creature itself resembled a big gelatinous ball that altered its shape when moving through tighter spaces. Despite the low budget effects, the film remains enjoyable today, and packs a fair amount of suspense into some of the scenes. The 1988 remake, starring Shawnee Smith (the Saw movies and the TV series Becker) and Kevin Dillon (Platoon, the TV series Entourage), used more CGI for the effects, making the creature transform into more unearthly shapes as it devoured those in its path. For the most part, the remake stayed pretty close to the original, with both having the big climactic scene taking place in the local movie theater. Both are worth watching, making for a different type of monster movie.
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” That was the tag line for Ridley Scott’s excellent sci-fi/horror thriller Alien (1979). The film, detailing the finding of a derelict spacecraft by the crew of the Nostromo and the horror contained within, was a huge hit with critics and audiences alike. The character of Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, ushered in a new breed of female action hero. Seven years later, in 1986, director James Cameron (The Terminator) would take Ripley and audiences back to the world of LV-426 in Aliens, where he dialed up the suspense from the original film and increased the number of nasty xenomorphs. The action was fast paced, with some huge set pieces, and the cast did a great job creating a crew of memorable characters, including Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), Newt (Carrie Henn), Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), Hudson (Bill Paxton), and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen). The final battle between Ripley and the Alien Queen is one of the best, with audiences cheering as Ripley told the creature menacing the girl Newt, “Get away from her, you bitch!” Two more sequels followed, along with two crossovers with the Predator franchise, but none was more successful than this. Now if only they could have made a decent game from this source material….
King Kong (1933, 2005)
Kong was the granddaddy of them all, bursting on the screen to take on dinosaurs and biplanes, and becoming an icon in cinematic history. It wasn’t the first to feature prehistoric creatures (an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World had been made eight years earlier, in 1925), but it was a first in many other ways, especially in terms of plot and special effects. Stop motion photography may look antiquated to modern audiences, but in 1933 it provided a thrilling look into a world no one had ever seen before. Willis O’Brien pioneered the effects, painstakingly moving the models and shooting a frame at a time to give the illusion of a living, breathing animal. Kong and the various other dinosaurs were brought to life as never before, and it made for some of the most thrilling images in cinema at the time. The cast sold it completely, especially Fay Wray, the actress who played Ann Darrow, the object of the big ape’s affections. It was an added twist to the story, with Ann caught between the fearsome giant gorilla and John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), one of the crew members of the Venture, the ship hired by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong). Denham, a film producer who wants to shoot his next picture on the mysterious Skull Island, is as unscrupulous as they come, only realizing too late the danger he has placed Ann in. The climactic battle atop the Empire State Building is a classic. In 2005, Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), a longtime fan of the original, decided to remake the movie using modern effects and adding some sequences back in that were cut from the original. Motion capture now replaced stop motion, giving a far more real looking and behaving ape as well as applying current knowledge of dinosaurs and making them far more realistic than those that had appeared in 1992’s Jurassic Park. Jackson wisely stuck to the time period of the original, determined not to repeat the mistakes of the 1976 remake (notable only for giving audiences their first glimpse of the talented Jessica Lange). Characters largely remained unchanged, save for Driscoll, who now became a playwright instead of a crew member. The relationship between Ann and Kong was also expanded, making Ann a bit more sympathetic to the giant ape instead of just being frightened by him. It all added up to an epic film, and improves on and compliments the original in every way.
Gojira/ Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1954)
Of course, no list on giant monsters would be complete without the iconic fire-breathing, radioactive lizard Godzilla. Introduced first to Japanese audiences by director Ishiro Honda in the 1954 release Gojira, the monster served as a cautionary tale to mankind toying with atomic power. Born out of H-bomb testing in the Pacific, Godzilla rose up and left a trail of devastation in his wake, sinking ships, smashing island villages, and eventually making his way to Tokyo. Two years later, the movie was released to American audiences, this time titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters and featuring added footage starring Raymond Burr as a journalist who travels to Tokyo and ends up reporting on the creature and the destruction it caused. Of the two, the original Gojira works a bit better, driving home its environmental themes warning of the impact of using nuclear weapons. Burr’s character for the most part was merely an observer, added in to make a connection with American audiences. Both were hits,and the films spawned one of the longest running and most prolific movie monster franchises in the history of film. Godzilla has appeared in 28 movies produced by Toho Co., Ltd., an animated series, a 1998 American re-imagining by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012), and will be hitting the big screen again in 2014 in a new reboot helmed by Monsters director Gareth Edwards and starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, and Ken Watanabe. Godzilla has become a cultural as well as a cinematic icon, appearing in videogames, novels, and comics as well as appearing on screen. The movies spawned other giant monster spin-offs such as Rodan and Mothra, both of whom would appear besides Godzilla in several other movies. Of course, it was inevitable that the Japanese iconic monster would clash with America’s iconic monster, and in 1962 King Kong and Godzilla went head to head in the appropriately titled King Kong vs. Godzilla. The film even had two endings, one for Japanese audiences, where Godzilla emerged victorious, and one for US audiences, where Kong was the victor. Though Kong may have come first, I think i speak for many that Godzilla will always be King.
So there you have it. By no means a definitive list, but certainly one that can satisfy a craving for a giant critter flick or two. And yes, I know I left off such monsters as Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman, but this list was more about the guys large in size. The classic monsters will have to wait for their own list another day.
What’s your favorite giant monster movie? Let us know in the comments below, and until next time, make some popcorn and sit back and enjoy some giant monster mayhem in the movies.
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