Monster movies are a way to choose sides.
The appeal of cinematic outings starring giant lizards, famished space goo, risen leviathans and hormonal aliens is that these stories define what it is to be human by giving shape to a terrifying alternative. We are all suddenly on the same team by default when faced with nuclear-enlarged mutant insects, and even ardent foes like skinheads and the Nation of Islam would stand temporarily back-to-back against the Xenomorph queen.
True, there are exceptions. Some of the all-time great movie monsters are tinged with a dose of sadness and sympathy (Frankenstein’s monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong especially and, heck, even Dracula has moments of genuine pathos). But non-humanoid monsters can and should be brutally vanquished — or least driven back to a safe coexisting distance (looking at you, Godzilla) — in a savage celebration of all the best aspects of humanity.
These are not animals run amok (sharks got to eat too, right?), but monsters in need of slaying, a tradition that dates back to “Beowulf,” and before.
So, in honor of the imminent return to the big screen of the king of the monsters, Godzilla (Legendary Pictures’ “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” in theaters Friday, May 31), Review culture writer Luciano Marano has selected six alternative monstrously entertaining movies with similarly inhuman stars.
1 ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ (1953)
One of the very first Atom Age monster movies, which went on to inspire a generation of creature features (including, reportedly, the original 1954 “Godzilla”) this stop-motion masterpiece still stands today as some of the very best work of special effects icon Ray Harryhausen.
In it, the last of a fictional dinosaur species is awakened from its frozen, hibernating state by atom bomb testing in the Arctic and promptly begins to wreak a path of destruction as it travels south, eventually arriving at its instinctive spawning grounds — modern New York City.
Based on a short story by the incomparable Ray Bradbury, this classic, the ultimate source of almost all modern giant monster movie DNA, is still well worth watching.
2 “Tremors” (1990)
Man, this movie should not be this good.
Forget the sequels (which, bad as you think they are somehow manage to be worse), but for a film whose admittedly ridiculous premise reportedly had star Kevin Bacon actually breaking down in tears on a busy New York City street, despondent his next project was a movie about giant man-eating worms, “Tremors” is shockingly well-made and holds up unbelievably well even today.
In it, the residents of a small isolated Nevada town must defend themselves against underground creatures. That’s it; that’s the whole dang thing. “Doctor Shivago” it ain’t, but what would today be shoddy CGI-saturated Syfy Channel crap is here handled with respect and intelligence (well, as much as respect and intelligence as can be in a movie about giant man-eating worms).
The practical effects are solid, relying primarily on sudden, brief looks at the monsters until near the end. And the cast is a legit wonder. Bacon and Fred Ward have genuine chemistry as local yokel handyman best friends, Finn Carter is smart and engaging as Rhonda, a graduate student conducting seismology tests in the area, Victor Wong’s entrepreneurial-to-a-fault general store owner is delightful, and Michael Gross and Reba McEntire steal the show as the survivalist/gun-loving Gummers.
Everyone behaves realistically, if not intelligently, and the film clips along at a perfect schlocky speed.
3 ‘The Host’ (2006)
This heartfelt, ecology-minded South Korean monster movie quickly became that country’s highest grossing film of all time (and is still 17th even today).
In it, a huge amphibious monster (created, it’s implied by the military’s chemical dumping) attacks a crowd, killing many, and then kidnaps slacker simpleton Park Gang-du’s young daughter. He and his dysfunctional family — domineering dad, medalist archer sister, and alcoholic political activist brother — attempt to rescue her, racing against the clock to get to the girl before the military can release a deadly chemical into the river and sewers hoping it will kill the creature.
The movie was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and received high praise around the world, including nabbing numerous awards for the cast and crew alike. It holds a 93 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Quentin Tarantino himself included it in his list of the top 20 films released since 1992.
4 “Slither” (2006)
Ah, horror/comedy — perhaps the hardest genre mashup of all.
Though they have much in common, horror and comedy both being automatic physiological reactions, they are also both incredibly subjective and at odds with each other. Here though, in the sick/silly directorial debut of James “not-so-fired” Gunn, the pairing works perfectly.
Starring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Tania Saulnier, Gregg Henry and Michael Rooker, the film centers on a small town in South Carolina that becomes invaded by a malevolent alien parasite which begins transforming its initial host, local businessman Grant, into a tentacled monstrosity, driving him to abduct an old girlfriend to serve as a breeder for his larvae. They, upon explosive birth, promptly go about seeking hosts of their own.
It’s as much David Cronenberg as it is Lloyd Kaufman, and although “Slither” did not do well initially (though horror magazine Rue Morgue named it the “Best Feature Film of the Year”), the film has since become something of a cult fave.
The effects are downright icky at times, in the best possible way, but they’re so perfectly balanced with ridiculously operatic violence and both guffaw- and smirk-inducing comedy as to be completely enjoyable.
5 ‘Attack the Block’ (2011)
The perfect encapsulation of my initial “choosing sides” hypothesis, this 2011 British sci-fi/comedy/horror movie centers on a teenage street gang who have to defend themselves and their housing project from predatory aliens in South London on Guy Fawkes Night.
It stars John Boyega (known today mostly as Finn from “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi”), who plays gang leader Moses throughout a truly compelling character arc that sees the young tough go from believably menacing to objectively heroic as he and his mates face off against enormous black-furred space wolf-things with big sharp bioluminescent teeth.
The creature effects are great, naturally, but the impressive young cast is the real draw here, in a film that for my money stands beside “Candyman” (1992) and “The People Under the Stairs” (1991) as crucial examples of a sub-genre I like to call “the horror of housing” — spooky tales with something to say about class, set in “the bad part of town.”
Also, Nick Frost (frequent collaborator with Simon Pegg) is riotously funny as a bumbling drug dealer who never leaves his penthouse apartment. Dig that hair, Nick.
6 ‘The Ritual’ (2017)
Based on the novel by Adam Nevill (often called England’s Stephen King), this movie sees four friends on a memorial hiking trip in remote northern Sweden about six months after the violent death of a mutual friend.
They get lost, unexplained things begin to happen, and it quickly becomes apparent they are not alone. In fact, something is hunting them.
Rural “lost in the woods” horror stories are a dime a dozen, but what separates “The Ritual” is the realistic performances and fully realized characters, the complicated and unfortunate new nature of their relationships in light of what happened prior to the trip, and the incredibly original monster design. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’ve never seen anything quite like the inhuman horror at the heart of this story. And though the tale’s trappings are regrettably familiar, and the run time does drag on a bit, it’s an enjoyable movie featuring a most memorable monster. What more could you want?