King Kong. Godzilla. The terrifying creature out of Alien. They’re all household names. They’re the superstars of the monster world, hogging the limelight while their less charismatic brethren languish in obscurity.
To redress the balance a little, we’ve compiled a list of a few cinematic monsters that deserve more attention. And given that movie monsters are always being shot, stabbed and set on fire by square jawed heroes, it’s fair to say that even the rubberiest, most shambling ones deserve a little bit of love, so if there are any you think we’ve forgotten, feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.
Q: The Winged Serpent
Larry Cohen’s largely forgotten 1982 creature feature is a genuine trash classic, with some great stop-motion effects and memorable performances from Michael Moriarty, David Carradine and Richard Roundtree,
Some ill-advised rituals unleash Queztacoatl, the flying Aztec serpent god of the film’s title, which flies around Manhattan Island, feasting on unwitting sunbathers and window cleaners before retiring to its nest in the Chrysler Building. Eventually tracked down by a Caradine’s detective and platoon of soldiers, the scene’s set for a final, bullet-strewn confrontation.
As movie monsters go, Q is held back somewhat by the fact that she’s seldom particularly scary. Nevertheless, there’s something quite endearing about a creature that enjoys chomping down the heads of nude sun worshippers. That Q’s brought to live via jerky stop-motion animation merely adds to her retro, 50s charm.
There are no shortage of Alien clones to choose from, but David Twohy’s 2000 movie Pitch Black is far superior to most, thanks in part to the creature designs of artist Patrick Tatopoulos.
Huge, nocturnal and barely seen, the big bat-like creatures of Pitch Black are fast-moving and unrelentingly aggressive, making short work of the movie’s rather two-dimensional group of survivors. Radha Mitchell and Vin Diesel are among the actors you guess fairly early on are more likely to survive than most, but there are, at least, a few surprises and plenty of shocks in Pitch Black’s story – if nothing else, it makes a change to see a less than heroic protagonist in Diesel’s gruff, amoral convict, Riddick.
Unfortunately, David Twohy was more interested in pursuing the story of Diesel’s character than the monsters of Pitch Black, with the director going on shoot The Chronicles Of Riddick in 2004. On the plus side, this means that Pitch Black remains, at least to date, unsullied by redundant, money-grabbing sequels, and the ravenous bioraptors remain a scary, if seldom-mentioned entry in the monster movie bestiary.
Tom Sizemore and Penelope Ann Miller star in this brilliantly daft throwback to the monster-of-the-week B-movies of decades past, in which a furry, rhino-like beast terrifies the visitors to a museum. Sizemore stars as a cop on the monster’s trail, while Ann Miller plays his scientist love interest.
The belligerent monster’s the star, though, and while the movie itself isn’t a classic, the creature, Kothoga, is an engagingly aggressive beast with a predilection for human brains. Designed by Stan Winston, the monster’s pincer-like mandibles are strikingly similar to the alien big-game hunter he designed for Predator, though its movements and eating habits are very different.
I was interested to learn that Relic was based on a 1995 novel of the same name by Douglas J Preston, who wrote a follow-up called Reliquary in 1997. The story, sadly, didn’t feature a return appearance from the original one’s monster, and The Relic movie didn’t perform well enough to justify a sequel.
A classic film that inspired numerous lesser sequels, Tremors may well be one of the best (and fun) giant monster movies ever made. Its premise, which concerns a group of isolated Nevada residents menaced by huge serpentine beasts from far beneath the ground, may be the stuff of B-movies, but Brent Maddock and SS Wilson’s script is full of intelligence and humour, and there’s a great cast, including Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward and Victor Wong.
While Tremors’ monsters, christened Graboids by one of the film’s characters, bear more than a passing resemblance to the sandworms in Dune in both appearance and burrowing habits, they’re perfectly realised and relentlessly aggressive.
Largely ignored in theatres, Tremors has since garnered a cult following on VHS and DVD, and justifiably so – it’s a great, fun movie, and its monsters are superb. Like the flesh-eating great white shark of Jaws, you never know where they’ll emerge next.
Swiss artist and designer HR Giger will be forever remembered as the person who created the terrifying star beast of Alien, and it’s impossible to imagine the film being a success without his remarkable input.
1995’s Species was another of Giger’s less successful attempts at creating a Hollywood monster. The results are less successful, though that’s mostly due to the film’s indifferent direction and pot-boiling plot.
That’s not to say the film isn’t an enjoyable B-movie romp, though (I remember seeing it in the cinema with a group of friends, and we thoroughly enjoyed it), but it’s at least one division below Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece.
Species’ monster, Sil, is a genetic cross-breed of human and alien DNA. Apparently normal in the film’s opening, she gradually mutates into her alien form. Escaping from the clutches of her creators, Sil heads off to Los Angeles to find a human to mate with. Given that Sil looks like Natasha Henstridge when she’s not sprouting tentacles, the process of finding someone to procreate with doesn’t take very long.
Species then degenerates into a kind of sci-fi sex comedy, in which scientist Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) and his colleagues rush around LA trying to stop Sil from getting herself pregnant.
A mixture of bad CG and bad lighting strip Giger’s monster of some of its impact, but Giger’s creature design is still a cool amalgam of translucent skin, tentacles and deadly spikes.
The kind of low-budget film you’d find in an off-license bin back in the days of the VHS tape, Metalbeast, I’d argue, is worthy of critical reassessment. A singularly daft sci-fi horror movie, Metalbeast looks a lot older than its 15 years might suggest, largely due to some poor cinematography and cheap special effects.
There’s still a rather good concept at the film’s core, though: the cyborg werewolf. Mad scientists, attempting to create the ultimate soldier, end up with a metal-clad lupine monstrosity running around their facility. Barry Bostwick and Kim Delaney lead the cast of hapless humans, while Kane Hodder lurks beneath several tons of rubber and fake fur as the titular beast.
Sloppily executed it may be, but I love the concept of a bullet proof werewolf. If there’s one monster movie deserving of a bigger-budget remake, it’s surely this one. Until then, we at least have the unforgettably daft original to enjoy. Choice quotes include, “He broke loose and killed Larry!” and “There’s nothing out here but a full moon. Oh no, wait. Aarggghhh!” Glorious.
Another cool idea let down by slightly wobbly execution, I remember being thoroughly enthralled when this weird, Ireland-set horror showed up on television in the early 90s. Rex is a pagan god who, when unleashed from his tomb by a pair of farmers, leaps dramatically out of the earth and embarks on a killing spree.
As a kid, I used to find Rex a quite convincing, scary monster, but he now looks rather rubbery these days, with LED red eyes, 80s hair and chunky, wobbly thighs.
There’s still something rather charming about Rawhead Rex, though, and viewed under dim lighting conditions and at the right angle, you can sort of see what the filmmakers were trying to achieve. At any rate, Rawhead Rex is surely the greatest name for any creature ever, and the movie itself features the only instance of a monster urinating on a priest. You wouldn’t get Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula doing that sort of thing.
The mid-to-late 90s was a surprisingly crowded period for Hollywood monster movies, and I rather liked Guilermo del Toro’s Mimic, his first English-language movie after his stunning debut, Cronos.
While far from perfect, Mimic nevertheless has some great monsters at the centre of it. A genetically mutated insect called the Judas Breed grows to enormous size and lurks in subway tunnels. Capable of disguising themselves as human, providing you don’t look too closely, the creatures look like humanoid silhouettes in long trenchcoats, their wings forming a rudimentary face.
Of all the entries on this list, I’d argue that Mimic’s monsters are the most cleverly thought through. I love the idea of a giant insect that has evolved to mimic humans to protect itself, just as moths mimic larger creatures with the markings on their wings.
Mimic is a daft and gleefully gooey B-movie, though del Toro was unhappy with the finished product, which Miramax had reportedly meddled with in the cutting room. Last year, del Toro mentioned that he’d put together his own cut of the film that he was happier with, which I’d love to see.
Even in its compromised state, Mimic’s still one of the better monster movies of the late 90s, and any film that has the nerve to dub its creatures Mister Funny Shoes can’t be bad.The Golem
A beast formed from clay according to Jewish folklore, the Golem has suffered mix fortunes in the movies. Where Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster was immortalised in James Whale’s classic movies, German expressionist Paul Wegener’s 1915 movie The Golem survives only in fragments. His second Golem feature, The Golem And The Dancing Girl, has disappeared from history altogether.
The director’s third, 1920’s The Golem: How He Came Into The World, however, does survive, and it’s a masterpiece of early filmmaking and design. Based on the famous 16th century story of the Golem of Prague, the film sees a Rabbi bringing the creature to life in order to protect his people from racist attacks.
The director himself plays the part of the Golem, a hulking clay man animated by the Rabbi’s magic. At first serving as a passive worker and protector, the Golem soon runs wildly out of control, and ends up destroying much of the Prague ghetto he was supposed to defend.
The Golem legend has appeared on the big screen several times over the decades, including a French sequel to Wegener’s movie, Le Golem, which appeared in 1936, and a cheesy Warner Bros feature called It!, released in 1966. The creature was also the subject of Michael Mann’s odd 1983 movie, The Keep, with an ancient evil released from its prison in a Romanian citadel by invading Nazis, and appearing to a Jewish Professor in the guise of the Golem.
That the legend of the Golem continues to be such cultural touchstone is proof of its lasting resonance, and its salutary tale of humanity menaced by monsters of its own creation has become a common subject in modern movies and literature.
No list of underrated monsters would be complete without at least one hulking kaiju creature, and Mothra ranks as my personal favourite. Godzilla may have the fame and the looks, but it’s the titular giant moth of 1961’s Mothra that ranks as my own personal favourite. The film marked a turning point for Toho, with its darker, moodier films of the 50s replaced by the more psychedelic, camp cheer of the 60s.
As is always the case in giant monster movies of the period, nuclear radiation unleashes a colossal napalm-proof caterpillar, which heads straight to Tokyo, metamorphoses into an even bigger moth, and then lays waste to the city’s skyscrapers.
Mothra later returned to fight Godzilla in no fewer than ten features, before getting her own trilogy of films in the late 90s. Interestingly, no one has yet come up with the plan of trapping the beast in a giant wardrobe full of mothballs.