The evolution of the giant monster movie

With Monsters out on DVD and Blu-ray today, we look at how the giant monster movie’s evolved since the 1950s…

Men in rubber suits trampling cardboard cities. The jerky yet beautiful stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. Mention the words “giant monster movie”, and these are almost certainly the images that immediately spring to mind.

While King Kong (1933) could be described as the first giant monster movie, with its giant ape going berserk in Manhattan, it was writer Ray Bradbury who inadvertently invented the genre as we now understand it. His short story, The Fog Horn, first published in a US newspaper in 1951, was used as the basis of the 1953 movie, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (which was also the original title of Bradbury’s story).

Featuring some great special effects from Ray Harryhausen, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms sees an angry dinosaur woken up from its slumber by nuclear testing. Understandably upset, the beast lays waste to New York, and is only stopped in its tracks by a nuclear rocket fired from a rollercoaster on Coney Island.

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A huge financial success, it was 20,000 Fathoms that sparked a wave of 50s giant monster movies, and provided the template for what has since become the Hoover of creature features, Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla (1954).

Almost identical to 20,000 Fathoms in terms of premise (the titular giant reptile is the by-product of nuclear testing), the quality of its cinematography and direction, and its evocation of the terrible destruction brought by the atom bombs dropped on Japan at the close of the Second World War gave the film an unforgettable resonance.

While Godzilla kicked off an entire series of giant monster (or kaiju) movies in Japan, the director of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms continued to direct similarly themed films of his own. 1959’s The Giant Behemoth saw a monolithic lizard menace a group of Cornish fishermen, before swimming up the Thames to vent its fury on London.

1961’s Gorgo was the same again, though this time it was a group of Irish villagers who stood in the shadow of a big rubber monster.

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It’s a simple template that has been repeated again and again over the decades. A monster, usually woken up or even created by an experiment of some sort, rises up and wrecks a city or two before it’s dispatched by a special weapon or, in the case of Gorgo, simply gets bored and returns to its haven under the sea.

From low budget B-movies like The Giant Gila Monster (1959) to Roland Emmerich’s tepid 1998 remake of Godzilla, big monsters have been trampling cities underfoot in largely the same way for years, even if the effects have become a little more slick in the process. Even Cloverfield, which proved to be a huge financial success for director, Matt Reeves, in 2008, added little more to the giant monster template than a cinéma vérité shooting style.

It was South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 movie, The Host, I’d argue, that was the first film in decades to attempt to do something a little different with the giant monster genre. While it uses a familiar framework (chemicals dumped in the Han River begets a destructive giant amphibian),  Joon-ho’s film places a convincing and quite moving family drama at the centre of the stage. By taking his time to introduce a sympathetic and engaging group of characters, the devastation that follows is given greater impact.

It’s a tactic that Gareth Edwards used so effectively in his startling debut, Monsters. Like The Host, huge creatures are part of the background action rather than the focal point of the narrative, with Edwards choosing instead to tell an understated relationship between its protagonists.

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While critics and viewers alike have marvelled at just how much Edwards achieved on such a low budget (the film was reportedly shot for just £100,000), less has been said about how original its manipulation of the giant monster genre is.

Almost all the wholesale destruction wrecked by the giant space cephalopods may have infuriated some viewers, but in Edwards’ hands, the premise becomes a springboard for an introspective, uncommonly subtle sci-fi movie about US insularity and the self-perpetuating nature of war.

Monsters is a gentle, at times beautiful movie that works as an homage to the creature feature movies that came before it, while at the same time moving the genre on in an intriguing new direction.

It’s fitting, then, that Edwards is currently developing his own version of a Godzilla movie. The director responsible for one of the most fascinating genre pictures of recent years is set to create his own take on the most famous monster movies of them all.

Monsters is out now on DVD and Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

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