I love monsters. Like, really. This list could have been thirty movies long and I still wouldn’t have exhausted every cinematic creature that has captured my imagination and haunted my nights. Aside from three of the movies on this list, the first movie monster that caught my attention was the shape-shifting and human-mimicking alien on John Carpenter’s The Thing. If you haven’t seen that one, absolutely watch it. It may be the greatest monster movie yet, sporting special effects that made the squeamish angrily denounce it when it was first released. But I’m here to share my more idiosyncratic favorites. If you’re a horror fan, you’ve likely heard of or watched several of these movies, but I hope there’s at least one that slipped by you.
For my money, there’s little in the horror genre (particularly filmed horror) that matches the pleasure and even awe aroused by one’s first exposure to a good monster. Each of the following movies can (and often have) be strip-mined for symbolism and psychosocial interpretation. Sexual guilt, repressed rage, conformism, the effects of pollution, these all come into play here. And surely it isn’t a coincidence that half of the movies are set in small towns or nearly deserted cities. I have written and will no doubt write again about these deeper meanings, but before you go doing any critical analysis (if that’s your idea of fun too), please just let these monsters be monsters and expand your notions of what might be creeping around out there in the dark.
The Brood (1979)
David Cronenberg is the undisputed king of body-horror movies, this despite the fact that he hasn’t made such a film in twenty years. I could’ve put any number of his titles of this list, with The Fly, They Come From Within, and Naked Lunch heading that pack. The Brood, however, fuses body-horror, monsters, psychological suspense, and a murder mystery into an especially tasty combo. This movie follows Nora and Frank Carveth, an acrimoniously divorced couple still fighting over the custody of their little daughter. Nora suffers from mental illness and has for some time been a patient at the Somafree Institute, the site of a controversial new psychotherapeutic technique invented by therapist Hal Raglan. When Frank finds evidence that suggests Nora is abusing their child, he tries looking deeper into Raglan’s methods.
Then, a series of murders begins, seemingly targeting people close to (or even within) the Carveth family. And the creatures carrying out these killings? Well, they are the stuff of nightmares, not only physically disturbing but also fascinating in their origin. As with most every movie before the 1980’s, the trailers for this film give too much away, so I’d advise skipping them. Much has been written on the gender politics of The Brood (as with most every other Cronenberg movie), and I must admit I’ve gone back and forth over the years with how I feel about that angle. But it is eerie, shocking, and surprisingly deep, with a depth of characters and situation more similar to horror novels than most monster movies.
I imagine many horror fans, especially those born in the 70’s and 80’s, cut their teeth on this classic monster flick. God knows I did. It still holds up very well, its practical effects still impressive and the imaginative nature of the creatures still a lot of fun. If you’ve somehow missed this movie, it’s about Billy Peltzer, a young aspiring artist who lives with his parents in the idyllic little town of Kingston Falls. This Christmas, Billy’s dad brings home a new pet for his son, an adorable Mogwai (species) that Billy names Gizmo. Seriously, Gizmo is the cutest monster in film history and that’s a hill I’m willing to die on. Gizmo is intelligent, curious, and he even sings.
When Billy accidentally discovers that if this creature gets wet, he multiplies, it looks like everyone is going to get their own Mogwai. Unfortunately, if Mogwais eat after midnight, they transform into something much less adorable, and before Christmas Eve is over, everyone in Kingston Falls will know about the Gremlins. Or at least the survivors will… That this movie managed to create not one but two iconic creatures is amazing. The sequel is a blast too, but will be covered in a more appropriate list. This movie’s violence (very tame by any of today’s standards) enraged some people enough that it helped spawn the PG-13 rating. That said, this is still kind of the perfect movie for a horror-curious kid.
The Blob (1988)
Frank Darabont, future director of The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Mist, as well as the co-creator of The Walking Dead, co-wrote this movie with Chuck Russell. It is a gory adventure, one featuring Shawnee Smith of the Saw movies and special effects that are often really good even for today. After a meteorite crashes near the small town of Arborville, a gelatinous blob emerges from it. This gooey mess has an acidic effect on human beings and animals, and it grows larger with every meal. Soon, the town is falling apart as the blob munches its way through the citizenry.
The Blob knows it has a ridiculous premise, but it plays it straight most of the time, avoiding falling into camp by creating at least a few characters that we like and then offing them in surprising ways. I saw this for the first time when I was twelve or so, and while the scene in which the creature feasts on the audience at a movie theater disturbed me, one particular death in the sewers haunted me for years. The blob itself is an archetypal Thing Without a Name, pure alterity and with a mindless drive to grow larger. If you can stomach some melty humans (the blob certainly can), then this movie is a great time.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
As with Gremlins and The Blob, this was an early horror movie for young me. It is another movie with a hilariously ridiculous premise that still manages to be not only fun, but genuinely scary at times. The movie is about… Well, it’s all there in the title. It turns out that there’s a species of aliens that resemble large, deformed clowns, and these aliens are equipped with weapons and vehicles that look like they were made for a demented circus. These creatures apparently visit Earth from time to time in order to snack on us. When they land in the small town of Crescent Cove, they set to work cocooning and harvesting their human prey. Only a small group of young people know the truth at first, and of course, they aren’t believed until it’s too late.
The clowns themselves are actually pretty damn horrifying. These are excellent monster creations, not just folks with paint and rubber noses, and there’s quite a variety of them. Also, the theme song for this movie is kind of awesome. Don’t judge me. Aside from one kind of gory scene involving a puppet of sorts and another featuring a quick decapitation, there’s not much explicit violence or gore in this movie. Depending on a kid’s sensitivity to clown-scares, this is probably another good primer for young fans of the genre.
Far darker than the last few entries, Clive Barker based his second movie Nightbreed on a novella titled “Cabal.” In both, a young man, Aaron Boone, is convinced by his therapist (played by director David Cronenberg) that he is a serial killer who has been murdering entire families. Aaron flees until he finds a secret community of monsters who live under a graveyard, a community that soon takes him in as a fellow outcast. Alas, the forces of so-called righteousness are on their way to end this warren of misfits. Barker set out to explicitly subvert typical horror tropes with an aim to uplift the marginalized and different, while turning three characters (a therapist, a cop, and a priest) who might otherwise be seen as representing stability and normalcy into the real villains.
The movie is messy in some ways, that must be admitted up front. Barker tried creating an epic horror movie in an era when the genre was expected to deliver short and sweet thrills for an undiscerning audience. Interference from the production company resulted in a butchered version of the film that has only recently been supplanted by one in which much of the deleted scenes were spliced back in. All of that said, Nightbreed is an entertaining, visually interesting, and thought-provoking movie, with a whole host of sentient and often kind monsters to appreciate.
It is an unfortunate effect of cultural isolation, even in this age of the interconnected world of the web, that most American (and I suspect European) horror fans have never heard of Tomie Kawakami, simultaneously the villain and the victim of nine movies and counting in the Japanese horror community. These films are variously loosely or directly based on a series of manga by Junji Ito. In this movie, the cinematic introduction to the character (though a prequel would eventually be released), Tsukiko Izumisawa is an art student with a bad case of amnesia, one covering a three-month period toward the end of her high school years, and all she seems able to recover from that period are the name “Tomie” and flashes of some hideous transformation. During that time, one of Tsukiko’s classmates, Tomie Kawakami was murdered, and detectives on the case soon discover this isn’t the first time a young woman with that name has been killed. In fact, murdered Tomie’s seem to stretch back decades, even centuries (as the fragmentary historical record indicates).
Meanwhile, one of Tsukiko’s neighbors has found and is raising a creepy little creature, one who will soon look a lot like a certain teenage girl. Tomie’s monstrosity isn’t visible at first glance, as she just looks like a girl, but throughout the movies (as well as the excellent manga on which it is based), we learn a lot about her powers, her peculiarities, and her inevitably fatal flaws. Something I love about this first one is that they keep her face in shadow for a good amount of the movie, even when she’s speaking, building this eerie sense about someone who would otherwise seem harmless enough. But Tomie is dangerous: to the men and boys who fall into her orbit, to the women and girls who try getting close to her in one way or another, and finally, over and over again, to herself.
By the way, the movies are a radically different from one another with the exception of Tomie’s character (she’s always played by different actresses), and they are varied in terms of their quality, with some brilliant and creepy, while others are all but nonsensical.
Directed by James Gunn before he was swept into superhero-movie land, Slither is a riotous good time. In this movie, we are yet again in small-town America (Wheelsy, South Carolina), where once more a meteorite crashes to Earth, bringing an alien menace with it. This time, the threat comes from an intelligent parasite, one that possesses people (and animals), turning them into breeding receptacles or warriors. The first to be infected is Grant Grant, wealthiest member of this community, and it turns his attentions toward securing itself a vehicle for reproduction. Soon, Wheelsy is squirming with these creepy little things, and most of its inhabitants have been transformed into its vassals. It’s left to a ragtag group of survivors to try saving the world from this extraterrestrial takeover.
Comparisons of this movie with Night of the Creeps and Cronenberg’s Shivers/They Came From Within were inevitable, but the former was a sendup of old horror tropes and the latter a fairly serious story about science gone bad and sexual inhibition. Slither is a more a straightforward monster flick, albeit one animated by amusing dialogue and funny acting by genre stalwarts like Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, and Michael Rooker. I find the little squirmy creatures on this to be entertainingly creepy and the gore impressive.
The Host (2006)
Before he directed the dystopian train movie Snowpiercer or the Oscar-winning black comedy Parasite, Bong Joon-ho made this well-crafted, exciting, and emotionally compelling monster movie. Where most movies about giant dangerous creatures tend to focus mostly on the large scale, Joon-ho’s film zeroes in on one family who is directly impacted by the monster’s rampage. Years after an American military researcher makes his Korean assistants dump chemicals into the Han River, a large fishlike creature emerges from the water to attack the citizenry nearby. A teenage girl is abducted by the monster and her family is forced to try rescuing her on their own.
The creature at the center of this movie is slippery, malicious, and wily. It’s much smaller than Godzilla, King Kong, and their ilk, which means it can hunt and hide in ways that makes it arguably scarier than its big stompy cousins. And the monster aside, this is a rare creature flick with an engaging group of characters that you genuinely worry for.
This is certainly the most violent movie on this list, even though its body count is much lower than most of them. Polly and Seth are driving through Oklahoma with plans to go camping when their car is hijacked by an escaped convict and his girlfriend. This isn’t the worst of it, though, as the four discover when they find themselves trapped in a gas station by monsters animated by tiny needles. Most of this movie is a siege of sorts, as these desperate characters look for a way to survive. The monster here is more similar to the slugs and slithering aliens of Night of the Creeps and Slither, an infectious agent and not a single creature, but what it does to its victims in remaking them into hosts distinguishes the movie from the others. This movie is painful to watch in all the best ways, particularly if you’ve ever had a bad splinter or have been infected by an alien parasite.
It Follows (2014)
David Robert Mitchell
I think this is easily one of the finest horror movies of the 2010’s, and it shows how terror can be elicited by a strong concept, likeable characters, and simple yet disturbing shots. After a young woman named Jay loses her virginity to what seemed like a decent guy, he chloroforms her, ties her to a chair, and tells her that she’s now in trouble, that she has essentially caught a sexually-transmittable curse. Somewhere out there is an entity walking directly towards Jay, intent on killing her when it catches her. And this creature? It can look like anyone, anyone Jay knows or doesn’t know. What follows (ha ha) is a tightly-made, intelligent, and eerie journey into paranoia and ethical considerations. Should Jay pass on the curse, thus at least temporarily protecting herself?
The monster here is seriously disturbing, perhaps in part because it doesn’t have a set form or visual characteristic. It is just anybody, just dead-eyed people walking in a straight line right toward you wherever you go and wherever you hide. The movie is even smarter than this description hopefully makes it sound: little details like the inconsistent seasons, technologies, and even photos in the background all lend to the sense that there’s something wrong just beneath the surface. I know some folks read this film as being anti-sex, but it could just as easily be seen as being about the guilt our societies burden us with for natural sexual desires. And some of those background clues make me wonder if the movie is saying something even subtler about sexual abuse. At any rate, such a great movie (unless you’re expecting gory monster-effects and a high body-count), and a monster that sticks with you not despite its lack of creature-effects, but rather because of that lack.