Published by Ethan Brehm
Jun 23, 2022
Published by Ethan Brehm
Jun 23, 2022
It was the summer of 1975 when Jaws debuted to packed movie houses across the country. A relatively-unknown Steven Spielberg begrudgingly wrestled a mechanical shark for five months prior to inadvertently inventing the summer blockbuster with his sophomore theatrical release. His masterpiece about a shark who terrorized the fictional Amity Island changed the way movie studios approached literally everything. But this wasn’t the first time a monster movie rocked the world of cinema for good. F. W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu changed the way we visualized monsters in 1922, and then a decade later, Universal essentially defined the horror genre for a new era of talkies with the 1931 double-whammy of Dracula and Frankenstein. RKO’s King Kong held a mirror up to humanity in 1933 while becoming the first benchmark for special effects, and The Bride of Frankenstein became the first great sequel two years later.
It goes without saying that monster movies have a way of impacting both art and industry. With their massive scopes and inherently high stakes, these stories have a way of shaking things up that smaller movies can’t always do. It helps that the essence of these tales has historically been bigger than the capabilities of the projects themselves, which only calls for more inventiveness to get the jobs done. We’ve compiled a list of the best monster movies ever made, from the early sound days all the way up to modern classics. Not all of these had as big of an impact as Jaws and the like, but they all took risks, held poignant themes, and most of all, thrilled us.
A Few Criteria
The term “monster movie” might conjure up images of King Kong or, as a deeper reference, the comically giant ants from the 1954 classic Them! However, monsters can be smaller in scale as well (e.g., The Fly, The Thing). To clear up any confusion, these are the criteria we’re using for our own list:
No Humans: This is the most basic standard. A monster can be a creature that’s formerly a living human, now with animalistic traits (e.g., Frankenstein’s Monster), or animals with elevated attributes (e.g., “Bruce,” the shark from Jaws), but they can’t be strictly human.
No Weapons: There’s a fine line between monster movies and slashers. If the monster in question wields a weapon, we’ve excluded them from this list. For the more murderous creatures on this list, they must use their bare hands or claws (or teeth or what have you) to get the job done.
No Ghosts: As much as we’d love to include the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Candyman or Evil Dead on our list, “ghost movies” are almost always either slashers, haunted house films, or existential dramas (e.g., Ghost).
No Zombies: While zombies are definitely monstrous, they’re also contagious, implying that the monsters in question are really the viruses themselves. Including zombies on this list would not only open up this category to hundreds more movies but would obfuscate the true spirit of what monster movies are in the first place.
No Vampires: This is a tough one. Vampires seem to qualify as both intelligent and undead. Although 1922’s Nosferatu is one of the most influential films in the horror genre, let alone the monster movie subgenre, we have to draw the line somewhere. We did, however, make one exception due to its synonymity with the subgenre. Also, it was the only way we could reconcile with the exclusion of vampires as a whole. Universal’s 1931 Dracula is considered part of the technical lineage of the studio’s monster movies, was marketed as such, and popularized the idea of creatures in the movies in the first place by helping define the horror genre, thus kicking off the studio’s Golden Age of horror.
While we’re not considering any other vampire films for this list due to their non-monstery nature, the 1931 English-language Dracula, based on the 1897 Bram Stoker novel of the same name, began Universal’s reign as the horror king in the 1930s and ‘40s and is the inaugural “monster movie,” which is a term used by the studio itself. Dracula wasn’t the first time audiences saw horrific things on screen, but it was the first time they were able to feel terror in this way, felt even more by the new innovations in sound. Led by an iconic performance by Bela Lugosi that came to define the idiosyncrasies of the character, even today, this movie forever changed the horror genre and cinema as a whole.
Prior to Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, movies that contained horror elements were simply called “dark melodramas.” With these two cinematic icons, released nine months apart, these elements were put together in a cohesive manner and the word “horror” was used to describe movies for the very first time, firmly planting in the public’s mind what the expectations should be for this fledgling genre. Following the titular scientist who sought to bring a man back to life, Frankenstein first gave us our visual image of Frankenstein’s Monster, played by the incomparable Boris Karloff, with his squared head and bolts in his neck. Guided by the literary genius of Mary Shelley, the film was also the first time we experienced true conflict over whether to root for the human or the monster. While the sequel gave more life to its monster, the 1931 original showed us how man’s inclination to play God often has catastrophic consequences.
In 1932, The Mummy was the epitome of a monstrous creature yearning for love and rest from long-lasting turmoil and pain, a trope that became a staple in the monster movie subgenre. The film, starring Boris Karloff as ancient Egyptian high priest Imhotep who’s brought back to life by modern-day archaeologists, was Universal’s attempt at an original story, albeit based on Egyptian superstitions. Being the first fictional iteration of a mummy coming back to life, the film has had a big influence across all media, including around 20 different iterations on the big screen alone.
Unlike Universal’s monster flicks which were mostly adapted from old Gothic horror literature, RKO’s King Kong was an original concept. One of the most groundbreaking and influential movies of all time in terms of special effects, sound design, scope, and just overall filmmaking technique, the 1933 picture set the bar with its hand-crafted set-pieces, layered soundtrack, stop motion animation, and combination of live actors with stop motion footage. Following a zealous movie director who ventures to the rumored Skull Island where he hears tell of the existence of mythical creatures, the film has since garnered a mystique as the godfather of giant monster movies, let alone the Japanese kaiju flicks. But calling King Kong a mere paradigm for the monster movie genre would almost be minimalizing all it’s done for cinema as a whole.
Bride of Frankenstein isn’t just arguably the best of the Universal monster movies, but one of the best sequels of all time. Building off of what the original did so well, James Whale’s magnum opus doubles down on the connection to Mary Shelley’s original book while introducing a couple of new ideas in the process. Dr. Frankenstein partners with his former mentor to give the Monster, who’s now on the run, a female companion. Karloff as the Monster is brilliant as he’s able to tap into his character’s emotional depth, which really takes front stage this time around.
Werewolf movies are interesting in that they often tell the story from the point of view of the creature itself. Defining, for some, what a monster movie truly is, Universal’s The Wolf Man perfectly conveys what often makes creatures become monsters: the viewpoint of others. Debuting a decade after Dracula and Frankenstein, this movie is notable for not having any literary beginnings, although it still heavily informed our depiction of what a werewolf is, with visual references cropping up even in today’s cinema.
While it didn’t invent the horror-comedy genre, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein took what worked so well the decade before and retooled it for a new age of horror. As traditional horror was giving way to sci-fi in a post-War Atomic Age society, the public simply wasn’t scared of Frankensteins and Wolf Men anymore. Universal had to try something new. Taking notes from the likes of the original silent version of Cat and the Canary to popularize the subgenre, the studio paired the famous comedic duo with a couple of its monsters for a rollick that went on to influence the likes of Scooby-Doo and Monster Squad.
Ray Harryhausen may have been an icon in special effects, having a profound impact on the likes of Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, and countless others, but the first film in which this wizard was fully in charge of visuals was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. While inspired in part by 1933’s King Kong, this monster flick, in which a dinosaur gets thawed from ice only to wreak havoc on North America, heavily influenced the giant monster movies that eventually plagued the ‘50s, notably by showing the first creature to be directly transformed by an atomic bomb. The Japanese release in 1954 is the first time the word “kaiju” was used in a movie title.
Universal went out with a bang for its final iconic creature feature. The Creature from the Black Lagoon matched the sci-fi intrigue of the 1950s while also retaining elements of the studio’s horror heyday. Centered on a group of biologists on an expedition down the Amazon river after discovering fossilized evidence of a humanoid fish, the 1954 classic is a paragon of drive-in fodder (released in 3D at the time) while also garnering a heavy cult following nearly 70 years after its release.
When many people think of monster movies, they immediately go to 1954’s Godzilla. Ishirō Honda’s instant hit oozes with World War II subtext, atomic paranoia, and a hint of the naturalism found in King Kong two decades earlier. It soon made its way from Japan to the rest of the world (the Americanized version from 1956 is called Godzilla, King of Monsters!) and eventually spawned a franchise featuring 36 installments and counting. However, none of them have captured the raw magic of the original.
If ants will invade our homes as small creatures, what would they do if they were 30 feet tall? That was the thinking behind Gordon Douglas’ iconic B-movie about giant ants. Both a paradigm and instigator of the atomic insect movies of the ‘50s, Them! proves that “cheesy” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” While giant apes, lizards, and dinosaurs are terrifying, the public’s aversion to insects is even greater simply because we have to deal with them in our everyday lives, and familiarity breeds contempt. The film was an instant hit for Warner Bros. and even got nominated for a special effects Oscar.
After the decline of Universal’s creature features and nearly a decade of sci-fi fixation, the horror genre was in disarray and monster movies had now entered the realm of giants. Enter the UK outfit Hammer Studios, which became the first to challenge Universal with their own versions of iconic literary monsters, bringing the genre back to the ‘30s by trading mass destruction for smaller stakes — except this time they were very, very gruesome. The studio utilized a talent pool that included Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, who both starred in The Curse of Frankenstein, an ultra-Gothic retelling of Mary Shelley’s novel. Shot in color, the picture not only kickstarted the dominance of Hammer Horror but paved a new bloody path for the floundering genre.
The Blob came at the tail end of the Space Age ‘50s but was the last hurrah for a genre that had nowhere to go and was now bordering on self-parody. Starring Steve McQueen in his first lead role, the 1958 classic centers on a small town that gets infested by an amorphous, and carnivorous, alien mass. At a time when backlot sets riddled studio pictures in Hollywood, The Blob was filmed on-location, which helps it establish a certain atmosphere that most other ‘50s horror lacks. Today, Blobfest is held each year at the Colonial Theater in Pennsylvania, where the iconic movie theater scene took place.
Before she allied (and clashed) with Godzilla, the giant lizard’s most famous co-star first debuted in 1961’s Mothra, directed by the same man who helmed 1954’s Godzilla: Ishirō Honda. If Godzilla is viewed as a staunch naturalist, Mothra is the ultimate protector. Her first outing sees the giant moth attempting to rescue a pair of singing fairy girls from a greedy businessman, thus transposing the premise of King Kong where now the monster gets to be the hero. The character herself has been featured in nearly a dozen Godzilla flicks, with a trilogy of her own in the ‘90s.
It’s easy to understate the importance of Jaws in cinema history. Practically giving birth to the summer blockbuster era (that still exists) and rejiggering the way studios market and budget their pictures, Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece absolutely dominated a pre-Star Wars box office. Surrounding a town that gets terrorized by a man-eating shark, Jaws made people afraid to go in the water while simultaneously fascinating them with the magic of moviemaking in a way they’d never seen before. Little did they know, the production endured countless travails along the way, but came out the other end as one of the most influential movies of all time, establishing a formula that many would try to copy but few would get right.
Ridley Scott’s masterpiece became one of the scariest movies ever back in 1979 when we watched a space crew from Earth answering a distress signal on a nearby ship, only to soon find themselves getting hunted by an aggressive alien creature. Shedding any campiness that was left over from the sci-fi heyday of the ‘50s, Alien responded to the likes of New Wave hits such as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a complete absence of adventure, replacing it with absolute terror. The film has since spawned several sequels and spin-offs of its own.
Werewolf movies are unique in that the main characters are typically the monsters themselves, which has proven to be quite a challenge for filmmakers over the years who have struggled to strike a balance between scary and intimate. Writer-director John Landis was up for the task with An American Werewolf In London, fresh off a string of irreverent comedies such as Animal House and Kentucky Fried Movie. However, his 1981 horror-comedy has endured as one of the best werewolf flicks since 1941’s The Wolf Man in how personal it made the struggle for its protagonist, played by David Naughton, and the unbridled chaos and subsequent tragedy that ensues at the end.
John Carpenter’s masterpiece transcended the burgeoning horror genre at the time for how it tapped into old-school horror tropes. Guided by an excellent script by Bill Lancaster and a towering performance by Kurt Russell, The Thing follows a team of researchers in Antarctica who become terrorized by a parasitic alien life form. Adapting John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? while partially remaking 1951’s classic The Thing from Another World, the 1982 film perfectly emulates the tone and mentality of the original while tipping its hat to ‘50s sci-fi B-movies at large.
It took a clever, twisted, and truly original mind like Joe Dante to craft something as bizarre as Gremlins, a horror-comedy about a teenager who receives a mystical creature that multiplies and wreaks havoc in a small town… on Christmas Eve. Written by Chris Columbus (Home Alone) and very loosely inspired by a 1943 Roald Dahl book, Gremlins took on a life of its own in the ‘80s with multimedia merchandising from which it still benefits today. Inspiring a slew of imitators (Critters, Ghoulies, Hobgoblins, etc.), this was perhaps the last “new” innovation in the monster movie subgenre, where now tiny critters took the place of large behemoths.
Building on the world of the first film, Aliens isn’t the first great sequel, but it’s the first one to come from the mind of a different visionary entirely, while also proving that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas didn’t have a monopoly on successful franchises. James Cameron upped the terror and intensity from the first movie as he wrote and directed this follow-up, following Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley who’s been found floating around in space for 57 years after surviving the events of the first movie — only to eventually stumble upon more aliens. The mother-daughter subplot proved to be nascent ideas for what would later become Terminator 2, yet another masterful sequel from one of the heaviest hitters in Hollywood history.
Along with The Thing, The Fly improves upon the ‘50s original by modernizing its plot and increasing the elements of tragedy. Like the best monster movies, this masterpiece from David Cronenberg features a unique relationship between protagonist and antagonist, shaking up our ideas of heroes and monsters, and forcing the audience to choose whom to root for themselves. Starring Jeff Goldblum as a man who accidentally fuses his DNA with that of a housefly, this just might be the grossest movie from a decade that was filled with disgusting films.
Since the “monster rally” movies of the 1940s (e.g., Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) were a desperate attempt to revive interest in Universal’s monster movies, most of them weren’t very good. It’s why a film like 1987’s The Monster Squad is better than the B-movies to which it pays homage. Combining the monster movie mythos with a coming-of-age story about a clubhouse of monster-loving kids, Fred Dekker’s popcorn classic encores the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Gill-man for one final outing to end them all.
Unlike The Thing and The Fly, where the remakes are inarguably better than the originals, Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob aims to coexist with its progenitor. Intentionally campy sequences punctuate the 1988 horror movie as it dives headfirst into grotesque visuals and some of the most memorable practical effects from its era. Expanding the story to include a captivating government conspiracy, The Blob makes plenty of nods to the Steve McQueen original, with many of the same settings, including a movie theater, diner, and doctor’s office.
What lies beneath the surface might be the scariest thing of all. Ron Underwood reaches into our deepest fears with Tremors, a movie about prehistoric underground worms that are suddenly picking off residents of a small Nevada town. Starring Kevin Bacon, this sleeper hit displayed several genre tropes that many figured had been dead by 1990, such as the decided balance between creatures and characters, as well as horror and comedy. The film spurred several direct-to-video sequels and even a recent TV series with Kevin Bacon reprising his role — though it never got picked up.
What Jaws and Star Wars did for Hollywood in the ‘70s, Jurassic Park did just two decades later. A benchmark for visual spectacle when practical effects were at an all-time high and still working splendidly alongside then-new computer-generated imagery, Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking mega-hit was an unavoidable cultural staple in the ‘90s and spawned sequels that are still releasing today. The story surrounds a wealthy old man who decides to open up a wildlife park that features de-extinct dinosaurs. However, he and his group of visitors soon discover what Dr. Frankenstein once did: Man isn’t supposed to tamper with life and death.
Before Snowpiercer and Parasite, Bong Joon-ho made waves with his ingenious filmmaking in The Host, a deceptively deep horror movie about a monster who kidnaps a young girl, forcing her family to search for her. Featuring elements from Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong, and a slew of atomic-themed creature features from the ‘50s, The Host throws in a dark tinge from a new era of jaded cynicism while also proving the director’s prowess and perceptiveness as a filmmaker over a decade before his Oscar-winning hit made him a household name.
Matt Reeves’ breakout showed how you didn’t need to focus on the monster itself to effectively scare an audience or to keep them invested in your characters. Cloverfield satisfied critics and fans everywhere when it debuted in January 2008 after a marketing campaign that revealed very little about the film. A found-footage monster movie where the humans are front and center, Paramount’s surprise hit follows a group of friends running around New York as they attempt to flee catastrophic destruction caused by some rarely-seen gigantic entity, as seen only through the lens of a camcorder.
Guillermo del Toro has always been nothing but obsessed with monster movies of all types, as evidenced by the (not-so-)subtle nods and references sprinkled throughout some of his earlier films like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. But in 2013, the director finally got his chance to helm a kaiju of his own with Pacific Rim. In a futuristic world where giant alien monsters come out of the sea, humans have to protect their cities by building giant mechas of their own. It’s not surprising that the movie has some of the best kaiju battles in contemporary cinema, but it is shocking how well they compare with the classics to which they’re paying homage.
Featuring a brilliant storyboard about people trapped on an island during the Vietnam War, Kong: Skull Island doesn’t feel the need to rehash the 1933 original whatsoever. Surrounded by an ensemble cast of Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, and John C. Reilly, among others, the film’s main star is Kong himself, who only benefits from the advances in visual effects over the past 84 years. An underrated modern masterpiece, Kong: Skull Island shows how heavily our vantage point impacts our own personal narrative, regardless of personal dispositions, and likewise never explicitly tells us whom to root for. In war, it’s not always so black and white either. Underneath its big-budget blockbuster pretense, this box office hit moves with satisfyingly deep themes about loyalty, spirituality, and the brutalities of war that defy all poeticism.
While most monster movies show the destruction currently happening, this one shows the fallout. One of the best horror films of this era, A Quiet Place benefits from a fantastic premise and actually-threatening monsters that have wiped out almost every living person on the planet. John Krasinski (who also directs) and Emily Blunt play parents in this world where the man-eating aliens can’t see and thus hunt using sound. The clever concept aside, A Quiet Place is storytelling at its finest and proof that original ideas can still be had in Hollywood.
After checking out these thrilling classics, add some more icons to your watchlist with our guide to the best animated movies ever made.
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