I’m usually a hard-line no-talk-of-Halloween-before-October person, but all the horror nights videos and monster cereals have won me over. Aggressive marketing wins again!
So to stay in the spirit of the season, here’s a list of my favorite movies about monsters, and why I like them.
Possibly the best monster movie ever made. When I first saw it, I already felt like it was going to quickly feel dated, but somehow, every time I’ve seen it over the years, it’s felt contemporary. I’ve always liked Aliens more than Alien, but I’ve gone back and forth over which is “the better movie,” as if that matters. At the moment, I think that Alien ramps up conceptually — alien ship to eggs to chest-bursters to Ash to MOTHER to the climax — while Aliens recognizes early on it can’t surprise audiences in the same way, so it ramps up in tension and plot stakes.
The Beast Must Die
I mention this 1970s British werewolf mystery every chance I get, because it’s got so much style. It looks like a Hammer horror, but was produced by a company that had a similar aesthetic and the ability to attract some remarkable talent to gimmicky schlock. This one is a mash-up of And Then There Were None, The Most Dangerous Game, and a monster movie. It’s got the wonderful “werewolf break,” in which the movie stops at the climax to let you reconsider the clues and decide once and for all who the werewolf is.1The climax of the last episode of Sam & Max was a shameless rip-off of this gimmick. The only thing keeping this movie from being a classic is that it’s not very good, but I still love it.
All the Bad Robot easter eggs are kind of insufferable now, but you can ignore that they’re there, and this is still the best modern take on a kaiju movie (I say confidently, having never seen Shin Godzilla). At the time, I was eager to find more depth in it, by pointing at all the things it said about video games and first-person perspectives and our dependence on smart phones and excessively documenting everything that happens, but all that ignores the simple fact that it does an amazing job being a movie about a giant monster attacking a city. The scene with Marlena behind the curtain is still one of the most memorable in any movie.
Kong: Skull Island
I’m still confused by a job interview I had where they mentioned my review of this movie as if I’d trashed it, because I thought I was pretty positive. It’s not deep, and it feels aggressively focus-grouped, but it’s got a cast over-full of super-talented actors and an art direction that is unstoppable. I do think that it would’ve been better if it had been its own weird outlier, instead of part of such an orchestrated attempt at franchise-building, because it’s got so many good concepts and such great style. It just feels like a bunch of great ideas got sanded down to the point where it was clever and entertaining but fell just short of being classic.
The credits for this include “Famke Janssen as Trillian St. James” and “Leanne Adachi as Toilet Lady,” which tells you 90% of what you need to know about this movie’s tone. It’s the movie Stephen Sommers released the year before he hit it big with The Mummy, and it’s got much of the same tone without the same budget. This is another one that I have a hard time calling “camp” because it doesn’t seem to care whether the audience knows it’s in on the joke. But it is deeply, unapologetically silly. If you’ve forgotten (or never saw) the trailers, this is the movie where the aforementioned Toilet Lady gets sucked right down through the toilet by the monster.
All the promotion around the new Dune movie made me realize that I haven’t seen Tremors since the 1990s. While I’m still such a huge fanboy of Star Wars and the MCU, I am conflicted that blockbuster franchises have made it harder for movies like Tremors to exist — goofy, fun, outliers that still have enough passion behind them that they don’t feel like throwaways. SciFi original movies2Or was it already “SyFy” by that point? were always trying to make the next Tremors, but it was the perfect example of trying to catch lightning in a bottle. (And it’s discouraging that the franchise itself has had the same problem, as far as I can tell). I feel like the only way you’d see a project with this level of commitment these days is as a Netflix movie, and while I’m sure it would be well-produced and entertaining, assuming you could find it in the first place, I’m skeptical we’d still be thinking of it 30 years later.
Speaking of movies that I haven’t seen in too long, I’m overdue for a rewatch of The Thing. This has long been my go-to example of a movie that I love but can’t watch again, because the gore was too much for me. (I own a copy in at least two formats by this point). I see clips now, though, and it’s perfectly 1982-level effects: truly horrible in a way that makes you admire their creativity, but far enough removed from reality that I’m able to remember “it’s only a movie.” My mind still boggles at the kind of imagination that could come up with the defibrillator scene.