Western Kaiju Movies: From the Lost World to Cloverfield
The Japanese weren’t the only ones making giant monster movies. Cloverfield was just one of a long line of them made in the West…
10 Cloverfield Lane, which comes out this week, isn’t a direct sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield; producer J.J. Abrams has taken great pains to tell us that. But by virtue of the fact that it references the name itself, we can deduce that the two films share thematic elements – and are likely both contemporary takes on a popular horror/sci-fi subgenre.
We can’t reveal the exact genre of 10 Cloverfield Lane yet, but in the case of Cloverfield, that subgenre was obvious: it was a modern-day version of a kaiju movie, the format long dominated by the Japanese with their plentiful parade of man-in-suit epics featuring Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and a stack of others stomping through the streets of Tokyo. But Cloverfield was one of the latest in a long line of, for lack of a more colorful expression, Western kaiju movies: our own homegrown “strange creatures” laying waste to cities in (and sometimes outside) the U.S.
Here’s a quick trip through Western kaiju movies, starting in the 1920s and continuing through the present, including of course Cloverfield.
The Lost World (1925)
Based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novel, The Lost World featured groundbreaking stop-motion effects by the great Willis O’Brien, who eight years later captured the imaginations of audiences everywhere with King Kong. In The Lost World, Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) leads an expedition to a hidden plateau where dinosaurs still roam; one of them, a brontosaurus (as they were called at the time) is taken back to London, where of course it breaks free and becomes the first giant monster to stomp a city onscreen.
The Lost World (remade in 1960, and no relation to the Jurassic Park sequel) was a pioneering film in so many ways: it was the first to feature visual effects as the centerpiece of the story, the first film to ever be shown on an airplane, and the first to feature a giant primeval beast rampaging in the modern world. We owe it a lot.
King Kong (1933)
What can be said about King Kong that hasn’t already been said? It had a huge impact on the Japanese, who came up with their own King Kong movie the same year (Wasei Kingu Kongu) before developing Godzilla some 20 years (and two atomic bombs) later. It also influenced countless numbers of American monster movies as well as generations of sci-fi writers, artists and filmmakers.
The simplicity of the story – man vs. nature, beauty and the beast – was served well by O’Brien’s visual effects, which stunned the world and still have an eerie verisimilitude today. Kong himself – while an overgrown ape and less a “strange beast” – is one of cinema’s iconic giant monsters.
Remade poorly in 1976 and decently (by Peter Jackson) in 2005.
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The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Directed by Eugene Lourie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is as influential in its own small way as King Kong or Godzilla, which it partially inspired. It was the first movie to expressly blame the awakening or creation of a giant monster on atomic bomb testing – a theme that would gain hold in films for the next decade or more.
It also featured the stop-motion artistry of one Ray Harryhausen, who would take the work started by Willis O’Brien to new levels of wonder. It made the monster – which originated in a story by Ray Bradbury – strangely misunderstood and almost sympathetic, even as it raged through the streets of Manhattan.
Nuclear testing turns harmless little ants into a giant army of terrifying monsters in this Gordon Douglas-directed classic, which still has several sequences that manage to unnerve.
Them! was the first of the “giant bug” movies, launching a string of knockoffs ranging from the effective (Tarantula) to the ludicrous (Beginning of the End), but this remains the best. The special effects are top notch, the script is taut and the suspense nonstop as FBI special agent James Arness and state trooper James Whitmore battle the beasts. One of the best sci-fi films of the 1950s.
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It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
This time it’s a gigantic octopus that is disturbed by nuclear testing and decides to raid San Francisco and attach itself to the Golden Gate Bridge. The movie was basically written to showcase Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion wizardry, even if the budget only allowed the cephalopod to have five tentacles instead of eight.
The cast is vintage ‘50s sci-fi, with Kenneth Tobey and Faith Domergue leading the fight, but let’s face it, no one is that interested in the little human drama rattling around up front; we’re here to see a giant octopus pull down a bridge!
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
Another film expressly developed around the skills of Ray Harryhausen, the rather formulaic 20 Million Miles to Earth at least benefits from a change of scenery, with the monster this time rampaging through Rome. The creature is also original, a Venusian beastie called a Ymir, and once it gets to a decent size it does a good job of terrorizing the Italian city, knocking down ancient landmarks and even going head-to-head with an elephant.
Harryhausen wanted the film to be shot in color, but the budget didn’t allow it at the time; years later he did a color restoration that now exists on DVD.
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The Giant Behemoth (1959)
The location switches to England this time, as Beast from 20,000 Fathoms director Eugene Lourie basically remakes his own film but sets it in London instead of New York. Lourie also recruited an aging Wills O’Brien — the genius who created King Kong and Ray Harryhausen’s mentor — for the stop-motion work, but a low budget and O’Brien’s health kept it from being top-notch.
Still, we hadn’t seen a giant dinosaur rampage through London since The Lost World nearly 35 years ago, and this one has the extra nasty effect of leaving radiation burns on whoever it passes. Which is a lot of people.
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Eugene Lourie bounced back from the rickety Giant Behemoth with this surprisingly compelling film, in which a giant creature that’s captured and brought back to London to be displayed turns out to be an infant — with momma on her way and mighty pissed off. Filmed in color and utilizing men in suits as the monsters rather than stop-motion creatures, Gorgo is atmospheric, has great special effects and makes its monsters sympathetic — innovative for its day.
The movie also engenders a much better sense of melodrama and believability than the standard rampaging-monster destruction fest. Easily one of the best monster movies of its time, Gorgo is ready to be re-appreciated.
Q, the Winged Serpent (1982)
Written and directed by the iconoclastic genre specialist Larry Cohen, Q puts the Aztec winged god Quetzalcoatl right in the middle of Manhattan after a series of Aztec ritual sacrifices bring her back to life. There the creatures goes up against the cops (led by a terse David Carradine) and a two-bit crook named Quinn (played by Michael Moriarty in one of the great B-movie performances of all time) who knows where the monster is hiding — but wants to cut a deal before he reveals it.
Q is a quirky monster movie like no other, thanks to Moriarty’s showstopping eccentricity and Cohen’s always offbeat mix of horror, comedy, thrills and street smarts.
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A cult classic that improbably spawned a franchise (four sequels and counting, not to mention a short-lived TV series), Tremors is a throwback to the monster movies of the 1950s, only with a modern sense of humor that is both bracing and engaging. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are terrific as two handymen who somehow find themselves fending off an attack by hungry underground creatures (“Graboids”) in a wide spot in the road known as Perfection, Nevada.
Great special effects, a lot of humor and a genuine sense of fun make this one of the more pleasant creature features of the last 25 years.
Jurassic Park (1993)
23 years and three inferior sequels later, Jurassic Park still manages to thrill and terrify us, and its dinosaurs — a mix of animatronics and CG — look better today than many other contemporary effects-laden blockbusters.
Like all the best monster movies, Jurassic Park instills us not just with fear, but a sense of wonder; director Steven Spielberg draws us to his monsters even as he does everything he can to make them scary as hell. The movie may not have the gravitas of even the original Godzilla, but its got an elegance that none of its follow-ups have ever managed to recapture.
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A misfire in almost every possible way, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was nonetheless the first attempt to bring the iconic Japanese monster to American audiences on a grand scale. The problem was that Emmerich didn’t know what movie he was making, going for camp humor when fans wanted something along the lines of the very first — and very dark — Godzilla film released in 1954.
It also didn’t help that his Godzilla resembled an iguana more than the towering beast of the Japanese series. Godzilla’s climactic assault on New York — aided by a bunch of baby Zillas — does bring some spectacle, but it’s too little too late.
Reign of Fire (2002)
In the not-too-distant future, dragons have replaced humans as the dominant species on Earth and the human survivors struggle to stay alive under increasingly desperate conditions. This is a wild and epic premise that Reign of Fire runs with — and even if the movie is no classic, it has been somewhat overlooked and is worthy of reappraisal.
Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey star, with the latter showing off some serious bad-ass action chops as a half-deranged military leader. But it’s the money shots of fire-breathing flying monsters battling helicopters and tanks that everyone is coming for, and they don’t disappoint — while making this one of the more original creature features of the 2000s.
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A giant monster attacks New York City, as seen through the lens of a camcorder carried by one of six young friends trying to get to safety. You either love or hate Cloverfield — conceived by J.J. Abrams, written by Drew Goddard (The Martian), directed by Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) — for the same reason: the film gives you nothing in the way of context or explanation for the horror that manifests itself at the southern tip of Manhattan. It just happens.
In a post-9/11 world, Cloverfield’s creature becomes the most potent metaphor for sudden cataclysm since the original Godzilla himself, and is all the more terrifying for it.
In Monsters, the kind of wall between the U.S. and Mexico that Donald Trump likes to dream about has already been built; too bad it doesn’t really help keep out the alien life forms that have infested our southern neighbor and are making their way into ‘Murica.
Director Gareth Edwards’ micro-budget directorial debut is hampered by some so-so performances but his command of the material and control of the film’s themes and imagery are completely confident. It’s a truly ambitious, eerie and even beautiful film, and it’s no wonder Edwards has gone onto bigger things.
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Pacific Rim (2013)
Guillermo Del Toro’s love letter to the kaiju genre almost has it all: bizarre, monstrous Lovecraftian entities, a dimensional rift in the bottom of the ocean, gigantic manned robots, and massive punch-ups between the kaiju and the automatons in devastated city streets.
What it doesn’t have is a truly exciting script or any characters worth a damn, starting with mystifyingly popular Charlie Hunnam giving his best imitation of a block of wood. Still, it’s got real scope and Del Toro’s love of the genre shines through from time to time.
And so we come full circle: 60 years after he first emerged and following decades of American imitations or competitors, the big green guy finally gets a mostly successful Hollywood upgrade. With Monsters’ Gareth Edwards behind the camera, this Godzilla plays it straight and overcomes obstacles like forgettable characters and a lack of any real monster action in the first hour to bring us some truly spectacular kaiju battles and genuinely terrifying moments. Godzilla himself attains the awe and grandeur that he deserves, all 400 feet of him.