The monster movie represents one of the most enduring genres in cinema, a versatile formula for exploring the horrors of the unknown. Whatever it is that scares us, there’s always a monster to represent that fear as a metaphor in the flesh. Most monsters are misunderstood creatures, victims of a terrible fate seeking redemption and, in some cases, vengeance.
Alien: Covenant, now playing in theaters, returns director Ridley Scott to a beloved franchise, following the mixed and controversial reception to Prometheus. The plot follows the crew of a deep-space colony ship, which lands on what appears to be an undiscovered paradise. This new planet holds many secrets for its new inhabitants, including David (Michael Fassbender) the surviving robotic companion of the Prometheus crew. Sadly, the series isn’t always consistent in quality (Alien: Resurrection was a definite low) but movie fans will always welcome a return visit to this classic monster movie territory.
To celebrate, and with forthcoming monster movies The Mummy and Okja in mind, we’ve taken a look back at the most frightening creatures in the history of cinema. From snarling werewolves to man-eating sharks, misunderstood monstrosities to prehistoric beasts, please enjoy the greatest monster movies of all-time.
Alien (Ridley Scott)
The simplicity of the set-up is key: a group of seven space truckers hauling mineral ore encounter a signal of unknown origin and land on an uninhabited planet to investigate. What follows ranks among the finest monster movies ever made because it creates such an all-encompassing world for its characters. The planet, LV-426, is a barren rock, devoid of life, save for a crashed ship, which carries hundreds of leathery eggs in its cargo hull. Don’t forget the contents of those eggs: the face-huggers and their inevitable full-grown alien spawn, dangerously adaptable beasts who bleed acid. The entire mythology of what later became a massive film series exists in director Ridley Scott’s Alien, a world so vast and fully realized that it understandably demanded serialization.
An American Werewolf in London (John Landis)
As two lovable idiots backpack across northern England, they’re warned to stay off the moors. “Beware the moon,” the locals cryptically advise. Instead of heeding this warning, writer-director John Landis’ hapless protagonists step off the road and into the moors, goofily unaware of the violence awaiting them. The comedic elements of An American Werewolf in London are essential. David Naughton and Griffin Dunne’s wise-cracking backpackers joke their way across the English countryside, oblivious of the full moon overhead. This warm comedic tone, like a magician’s sleight of hand, lends the audience a false sense of security from the impending danger, which Landis delivers with hair-trigger timing and ruthless impact. Cleverly effective jump scares follow visually arresting dream sequences. Dead friends rise from the grave to advocate for suicide and before long, our hero becomes the very monster that he once feared.
Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
A sea of meteorites descend upon a rough London neighborhood, meteorites containing vicious ape-like alien creatures. This commotion interrupts a group of delinquent youths mugging a young woman. A make-shift family unit forms as these mismatched Brits fight for survival against an alien invasion. At one point, an old woman bemoans the deterioration of her neighborhood and the delinquent youths running the block: “Excuse my French, but they’re fucking monsters!” While the metaphor might lack subtlety, the monsters are certainly top notch. Rendered by writer-director Joe Cornish like super-charged acrobatic killing machines, their air of menace stems from the simplicity of their design: an eyeless gorilla-wolf creature with rows of hideous bioluminescent fangs. To achieve this effect, Cornish simply employed a man in a gorilla suit, employing a minimal use of computer-enhancement to darken the fur pitch-black. As the majority of this list proves, complex photo-real CGI isn’t always the answer when creating a memorable cinematic monster.
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)
The most tender and oddly contemporary creature on this list may be Frankenstein’s Monster in James Whale’s classic, Bride of Frankenstein. After rising from the flames of the iconic burned windmill, the Monster returns home to find that his creators seek to build him a mate. He’s a pathetic creature, confused and lashing out at the world that utterly rejects him. As the mad scientist schemes in the castle, the Monster stumbles into the home of a blind man and strikes an unlikely friendship. They eat and drink together, but the relationship is inevitably doomed. Filled with rage, the Monster returns to meet his Bride, desperate for companionship, only to face rejection from her, as well. The ensuing fiery tragedy sadly confirms there is no place for such a mournful, pitiable creature in this world.
Dracula (Tod Browning)
Bela Lugosi’s unforgettable portrayal of Count Dracula began on a Broadway stage. When the film was in-production, Universal didn’t want him for the role, but Lugosi campaigned hard and landed the job. His oft-imitated turn as Bram Stoker’s titular Count, a broadly silent film-esque performance, brings a creepy demonic sensuality to the character. Lugosi’s vampire openly lusts after the same women he wants to bite, his fearsome and penetrating gaze locked on the object of his obsession. In fact, Tod Browning’s film also originated a frequently-imitated formula for lesser adaptations of the Stoker story: defenseless women get neck-bitten by the Count in his castle while their chivalrous boyfriends lounge at the pub, debating the existence of vampires.
The Fly (David Cronenberg)
The Fly is a perfect match between director and material, creating the ultimate body-horror film. Treating the film’s sci-fi subject matter with utter seriousness, director David Cronenberg grounds the twisted story in a textured emotional reality, which lends the darker developments such an immense, tangible impact. Like so many Cronenberg films, the monster comes from within, transforming Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) into a hideous mutant, hungry to adapt to his new being. Brundle’s twisted science experiment shatters the test tubes and destroys his life as a human. His life as a fly, however, seems to thrive. Soon, he’s hanging from the ceiling and vomiting on his food, his humanity slowly slipping away. It’s one thing to create a monster, but to transform yourself into one would be a terrible fate for any mad scientist. Comparatively speaking, Dr. Frankenstein had it pretty easy compared to poor old Brundle-Fly.
Godzilla (Ishirô Honda)
Baptized in the fire of an H-bomb, Godzilla is difficult to see as anything but a metaphor for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. After the monster devastates the city, leaving it in ruins, scientists debate the moral and ethical consequences of using a weapon of mass destruction to defeat Godzilla. Less than a decade after the bombings, this intellectual debate raged on and off cinema-screens. While the narrative might hurry at a sprinter’s pace, director Ishirô Honda’s film is awash with wry world-building details, which flesh out these characters, allowing the majority of the running time to take place in a laboratory and still feel actively engaging and deeply suspenseful. Some of the film’s most unexpected delights involve how Honda and co-screenwriter Takeo Murata playfully toy with the science and mythology surrounding their monster, including the discovery of a living trilobite scurrying around in Godzilla’s footprint.
The Host (Bong Joon-ho)
It might seem like a small creature compared to Kong or Godzilla, but the Han River monster in The Host causes enough devastation to rival any towering kaiju. A mutated fish-like beast known to hang from the underside of bridges, this river monster sends the entire city into chaos, killing dozens and kidnapping others for later consumption. The daughter of a lazy shop-owner gets dragged away to the creature’s lair, leaving her family to search for her amidst the madness. However, the South Korean government believes anyone who came into contact with the creature has become infected with a deadly virus. Walking a fine line between hilarious, scary and emotional, The Host is a brilliantly original political-monster tale.
Jaws (Steven Spielberg)
After becoming accustomed to John Williams’ beloved score alerting us of the shark’s presence, Steven Spielberg suddenly omits the music. The shark appears as Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) chums off the side of the boat, delivering one of the finest jump-scares in cinema. The effectiveness of Spielberg’s Jaws as a monster movie depends on the fact that sharks are not really monsters. It’s hardly irrational to fear a big shark, the only real animal on this monster list. If you’re swimming in the ocean, a sudden twinge of panic can set in. Why? You’re submerged in water, feet unable to touch the elusive sandy bottom through the icy waves. Spielberg’s film, still his finest work, fans the flames of this fear, keeping the shark off-screen for the majority of the running time, until we no longer expect it.
King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack)
Contemporary CGI could never improve upon the eeriness of Skull Island in Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong. A film crew travels to this mysterious island in the hopes of capturing images of Kong, a giant god-like ape said to inhabit the jungle, to shoot a film. Instead, their star (Fay Wray) gets kidnapped and sacrificed to the beast by the inland’s indigenous inhabitants. It’s only in the film’s final twenty minutes that Kong gets transported to New York City for his famously tragic finale. The film’s infamous effects by Willis H. O’Brien could have landed him an Oscar, but O’Brien turned it down because the Academy refused to award each of his animation crew members a trophy to acknowledge their contributions. O’Brien’s brilliant use of stop-motion animation to create Kong also inspired a young Ray Harryhausen to become a filmmaker.
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
Lonely kids often fall in with the bad crowd because it’s the only crowd that will have them. In Let the Right One In, a dark tale of the pains of adolescence becomes even darker when Oskar, a teenage boy, meets a vampire in the snow. Bullied at school and ignored at home, Oskar finds solace in his new friend, whose relationship with her own father-figure, a sad middle-aged man, hangs over the film, as horrific as it is heartbreaking. When you’re that age, the allure of a vampire as a best friend is naively understandable. At one point, he asks her: “Are you really my age?” Yes, she says, but she’s been this age for longer than she can recall. The beginning of one relationship overlaps the end of another. The darkness of the boy’s fate remains invisible to him, blinded by his newly formed friendship. It’s rare to feel as sorry for a monster as you do for its victims.
The Mummy (Karl Freund)
Boris Karloff’s Mummy may be more of a gentlemanly monster than his recent predecessors, but he’s just as powerful a force to reckon with. Almost too powerful, Karloff’s Mummy is able to telepathically kill people from across the city with his mind, which begs the question: why ever leave your lair? Just kill everyone with your mind and complete your plan with ease. Logic aside, what many fans may forget is how rarely the famous bandaged Mummy appears in the film, vanishing after only ten minutes, replaced by a wrinkled Karloff wearing a fez. At first, he’s a despicable monster, able to drive men to insanity with his gaze. It’s only after we learn of his mournful past that he becomes humanized and sympathetic. Directed by Dracula cinematographer Karl Freund, The Mummy portrays its monster as a tragically wounded victim, torn from the arms of the woman he loved and buried alive.
Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero)
Director George A. Romero’s use of social commentary hasn’t always been particularly subtle, (His entire filmography takes an unfortunate dive after Day of the Dead.) but the brutal impact of his ghouls in Night of the Living Dead, along with that sucker-punch ending, endures as undeniable. After leading the team of survivors to a house for shelter and holding out against a sea of flesh-eating zombies, Ben (Duane Jones) gets shot dead by the very people come to save him. This subversive stroke offers no hopeful reprieve from the horrors our heroes have overcome. The director himself told Roger Ebert: “We wanted it to look like a newsreel.” The film’s grainy black-and-white look lends a sense of ground-level reality to the tone, these subversive elements perfectly contrasting Romero’s unsettling shock-punctuations.
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau)
The original, and perhaps ultimate, cinematic vampire, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu as portrayed by Max Schreck (A name which means ‘fright’ in German.) remains a powerfully haunting presence in cinema. As Ebert writes in his Great Movies review: “Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in clichés, jokes, TV skits, cartoons and more than 30 other films.” One of the quintessential moments in the cinematic vampire lore originated not in Stoker’s novel, but instead in Murnau’s eerie film: Harker accidentally cuts himself with a knife and Renfield (although the titular vampire would take this role in later films) greedily sucks the blood off his finger. Even if you’ve never seen the film, the image of Schreck in his vampire make-up arguably stands out as the most iconic monster movie image of all-time.
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro)
Guillermo del Toro’s dark and heart-wrenching fairy tale contrasts mysterious fauns and eyeless child-eating creatures with a real-life monster, Captain Vidal, a sadistic Francoist. Set in fascist Spain in 1944, Ofelia and her pregnant mother arrive at their new home and meet the heartless Captain, who we learn is her stepfather. He’s also her captor, a cruel and possessive man with a penchant for sudden violence. Disappearing into a fairy tale like the ones in her books, Ofelia gets lost in another world, a narrative designed to keep her mother and her unborn brother alive at any cost. While Ofelia makes her way through a labyrinthine mystery in this fantasy landscape, the violence of the real-world seeps in, shattering her reality. Taking as much influence from Víctor Erice’s The Secret of the Beehive as Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, Del Toro’s masterful Pan’s Labyrinth finds an uplifting sense of hope in the darkest of places.
Possession (Andrzej Żuławski)
The aesthetic approach of Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession evokes a sense of impending doom, shot with wide-angle lenses to deepen and distort an already paranoid landscape. A husband/father (Sam Neill) learns that his wife (Isabelle Adjani) is cheating on him and seeks to end their relationship. Little does he know, she’s cheating on him with an octopus-like monster whose otherworldly psychic sexual-prowess dwarfs his human libido. A horribly mutated break-up movie, Possession is searing in its resonance and bleak at its core: a portrait of love gone totally awry and pushed to its most deranged extreme. The behavior of its characters becomes unnatural and menacing as their ill-fated relationship spirals downward. Hysteria ensues. Absolute hysteria, which overtakes and ultimately consumes both husband and wife, once and for all.
Q: The Winged Serpent and The Stuff (Larry Cohen)
In Q: The Winged Serpent, an exploitation-crime story runs head-on into a flying monster movie, set in seedy early ‘80s New York City. Perhaps the visual effects haven’t aged well, but the film itself remains delightfully engaging more than 30 years later. Shot on location atop the Chrysler Building, Larry Cohen’s film is worthy of revisiting not only for its delirious tone and snap-shot portrait of a long-lost New York, but for Richard Roundtree’s encounter with the serpent, unquestionably the film’s most ridiculous moment of unbridled camp. Shameless and unapologetic as any Larry Cohen film, Q: The Winged Serpent proves that fun and classiness are not mutually exclusive.
A strange white substance bubbles up from the ground at a mining site. A man sticks his fingers into the goo and tastes it, finding the substance surprisingly delicious. Within months, the Stuff is one of the most popular foods in the world. The only drawback? If you eat the Stuff, it transforms you into a mindless zombie. Half anti-consumerist satire and half parodic take on the paranoid thriller, The Stuff captures a brazenly strange tone of high-pitched insanity, which fiendishly escalates at a moment’s notice. (“You’ve got to understand… this is a dessert!”) After a young boy learns the secret, he charges through a supermarket, trying to destroy every last container of the Stuff. The scene, with its terminal-velocity madness and overly-dramatic score, achieves a singular and surreal comedic tone, also duplicated in many of Cohen’s other horror-inspired sequences.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (Nathan H. Juran)
Inspired by films such as King Kong, Ray Harryhausen fell in love with stop-motion at an early age and dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. His feature career began as an uncredited technician on Mighty Joe Young, for which his stop-motion mentor Willis H. O’Brien won an Academy Award. Harryhausen never even directed a feature film, his visual effects contributions to other filmmaker’s work so vivid and original that he became a household name for film-lovers. He created a new form of stop-motion animation, known as Dynamation, which allowed human actors to appear as if they were interacting with fictional stop-motion creations. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the first film to use the Dynamation label, is a delightful action-adventure story, filled with Harryhausen’s signature creations, including a treasure-hoarding, man-eating cyclops. The storytelling might feel primitive, but almost 60 years later, the film’s thrilling stop-motion sequences can still evoke a sense of child-like fascination. Before visual effects mavericks such as Tom Savini, Rick Baker and Phil Tippett, there was Ray Harryhausen.
The Thing (John Carpenter)
Most monsters are unmistakable beasts, lurching out from the shadows claws-first. John Carpenter’s The Thing presents a far less forthcoming creature, one able to hide in plain sight. Thousands of years ago, an alien ship crashed in Antarctica, depositing something to sleep, frozen in the ice. Once awakened, this thing’s cells mimic those of any creature it comes into contact with, killing and taking its place. An American research camp encounter the thing and one by one, find their numbers and their chances of survival diminished. The tone of Carpenter’s film is as cold as its setting, offering no redemption or catharsis for its characters. While the Thing lurks in the dark, the men become stir-crazy and fight amongst each other, even resorting to murder out of desperation and panic. The monster’s presence robs the entire camp of their ability to trust each other. In their eyes, anyone and everyone could be the thing.
What’s your favorite monster movie?