It’s a tale as old as the movies itself. Man does something stupid, or brilliant, or brilliantly stupid, and finds/discovers/invents/stumbles across a monster, and then spends the rest of the movie trying not to get eaten.
I’m not talking about Japanese Kaiju movies, although they are certainly a part of the larger discussion (and, FYI, will get their own Top 5 List at a later date). I’m referring to the things that are larger than humans, but smaller than Godzilla. Or, optionally, man-sized, but far from man-like. The monster in question doesn’t have to be a giant animal; indeed, the best of this type of movie are monster that never were, or thought to have been myths, or just plain aliens.
There’s also a hunter versus hunted component to this kind of movie. Whatever is chasing us for food triggers these primal fears within us that we typically suppress. As a country that is mythically saturated by a fear of the unknown, the Other, the Outer Darkness, these movies are at their biggest and best the every thing our ancestors feared when they huddled in their cabins for warmth. Our cabins are way better now, with wi-fi and air conditioning, but the fear never really goes away.
Those of you over the age of 40 will doubtless notice a lack of movies over 40 years old. Here’s why: as cool, as classic, as interesting, and as cinematically important as those movies are to the development of horror as a viable genre, in this day and age, they just aren’t very scary. And most of them, in fact, kinda suck. That we enjoy them anyway is beside the point; my love for the movie Robot Monster is well documented, but I don’t even pretend for a nanosecond that it’s very good, or has merit, or is something other good people should watch. It’s like being a Mr. Pibb fan. Enjoy it all you want, but don’t try to convince the rest of us that it’s not low-grade Dr. Pepper, all right?
5. Q (1982)
Director Larry Cohen is known for doing quirky, left-of-center character-driven movies. Q, or the Winged Serpent, is one of those movies that you either love or hate. There is no middle ground. I love it, but then again, I’m a nut for this kind of movie.
The New York City police are baffled by a series of rooftop murders involving grisly decapitations. There’s no connection between the victims and the city is in a panic. One guy actually knows what’s going on; a low-life con-man who sees the “murderer” and spends a good portion of the movie trying to make it work to his advantage.
I know, it’s not the usual thing, but that’s really what I like about it. Oh, and the creature design, which is stop-motion animated by Dave Allen. The few scenes featuring the full monster are well-done (well, as well-done as you can get in 1982 without using Ray Harryhausen, and I really do mean that in the nicest possible way). David Carradine stars in one of the weirdest monster movies you’ll ever see.
4. Tremors (1990)
If Kevin Bacon was only famous for being in Tremors, it would still be enough. Everyone likes Tremors. Everyone. Whether you think it’s a better-than-average B-movie, or you think it’s a brilliant post-modern examination of our environmental policies literally collapsing beneath our feet, or maybe you just like the Sand Worms in Dune and think they didn’t get enough screen time, Tremors is kind of like the everyman of Post-Modern B-Movie Monster/Political Allegory films.
The action takes place in Nevada, in a former mining town. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward stumble across a dead body on top of an electrical tower and afterwards, they find an old sheep farmer’s head and conclude there’s a killer on the loose. The town is, of course, overrun and soon a small band of intrepid survivors has to stay alive and get out of town and then when those options dry up, kill the monsters. The usual rate of attrition applies, here, as people do stupid or daring or brave things and get eaten.
The script is very much a Paint-By-Numbers endeavor, but the cast and crew take it seriously, and so you do, as well. That’s not to say that Bacon and Ward aren’t having a grand time. The movie is very quotable, too. You can, and probably should, avoid all of the direct-to-video sequels. Tremors became a franchise, with each successive release pulling the first movie down just a little bit, as most horror sequels do. Oh, don’t listen to me; I’m sure the whole “saga” would make an excellent afternoon binge-fest, provided there was enough beer and chicken wings.
3. Attack the Block (2011)
You’ve probably heard of this modern cult-classic, which was a darling on the genre festival circuit a few years ago. Now lead thug, played by John Boyega, who was discovered for this movie is one of the new faces of Star Wars for Episode 7: The Force Awakens. Best to try and watch this now, so you can say you saw Attack the Block before it came out.
What happens during an alien invasion when the creatures touch ground in the bad part of town? Good question. In Attack the Block, a routine mugging by a bunch of penny-ante teenage gangsters is interrupted by glowing meteors falling out of the sky. The kids come across some creepy extraterrestrial life forms, and so, of course, they kill it, thinking it’ll be something they can sell later on. But when more monsters, bigger monsters, start falling out of the sky, the pack of juvenile delinquents have to navigate between the real, actual, gun-toting gangsters on their low income housing block, and these terrifying alien beasts who relentlessly chase the kids all over the place.
There are some things about Attack the Block that will leave you conflicted. The least-unlikeable person in the movie is the hero, and you won’t like Moses for most, if not all, of the film. The chuckleheads he surrounds himself with are no better. And only his mugging victim at the beginning of the film engenders any real sympathy. All the same, as bad as the little hoodlums are, the monsters are far worse.
Speaking of monsters...wow. The alien creatures in Attack the Block are some of the most visually impressive monsters I’ve ever seen. You’ll dig them, guaranteed. They are truly alien, and truly terrifying.
The whole movie reminds me of early Walter Hill films, full of anti-heroes, penny-ante criminals with delusions of grandeur, and a streetwise sensibility made all the more strange by the British cockney slang and South London setting. Attack the Block is like The Warriors Meets Aliens, if that’s not too bizarre a reference for you, and well worth seeing.
2. The Host (2006)
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, and from those wacky Asians, no less, there comes this incredibly cool monster movie from Korea, proving that your irradiated and mutated marine life need not be 300 feet tall to be creepy and scary and destructive.
Check out this plot: some kids spot the monster hanging out under a bridge. It fall off, swims ashore, and starts eating people and stepping on them and chasing them hither and yon. I young man and his family have to figure out how to survive. Simple, elegant, and leaving plenty of room for the standard “we’re killing the planet” message to go with it.
The creature is fully CGI, and integrated into most of the shots with great care, so you really get a sense of this thing running amok, chasing humans the way a cocker spaniel chases squirrels in the park. The results, by the way, are about the same. There’s a lot of good tension and even a few jump scares to go with the edge-of-your-seat chase sequences.
1. The Relic (1997)
Based on the book by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, this movie of the same name does an admirable job of embracing the subject matter and splitting the difference between a police procedural and a monster rampage. Tom Sizemore plays the part of what would have been the first Agent Pendergast appearance on film (our loss, really) and Penelope Ann Miller plays the plucky scientist who knows all about the tribal boogum that’s cutting people up in the museum.
The location was switched to Chicago from New York City, and this meant that the Field Museum, one of my favorite museums in the world, is the major set piece in the movie. Despite Sizemore (pre-rehab, if I remember correctly) and Miller doing a bang-up job selling the story and getting their jump-scare on, the star of the show is the creature itself, an amazing blend of practical effects and CGI that is perfectly balanced so as to be fast, large, and terrifying. For that we have Stan Winston to thank.
This is, I think, an exemplary version of the monster-rampage plot, with just enough “keep it in the shadows” and jump scares that are not diminished when you finally get a good look at the thing. Plot-wise, it breaks very little new ground, but technically, it’s a textbook on how to deliver a good, old-fashioned, by the numbers monster on the loose movie. That’s important, I think, in this day and age. We finally have the technology and know-how to deliver a monster that should allow us to willingly suspend our disbelief. Consider this one of the first ones to do that from start to finish.
(bonus) Cloverfield (2008)
You might be tempted to call this a Kaiju film, and sure, the Cloverfield monster is a big ‘un, to be sure. But what’s missing from this J.J. Abrams/Bad Robot one-hit wonder is all of the other things that go into Kaiju movies. So, Cloverfield isn’t really fish or fowl, but somewhere in the middle.
One of the last gasp iterations of the “found footage” trope, Cloverfield is about a group of friends trapped in the city when a giant space monster hits town—literally—and starts stepping on and eating a bunch of people.
This is another film where the monster is a stand-in for the forces of nature as the people run and run and can never quite get free of this lumbering, capricious entity. The found footage actually adds to the suspense and helps sell the idea that these people are about to be killed.
The monster itself is pretty impressive, too, as it lumbers through the narrow streets, at times disappearing behind the massive skyscrapers until it hits an open patch of night sky and then, Whoa, look out, it’s monster time. This idea was used, terribly, in the Dean Devlin travesty that was Godzilla. Here, the idea is reclaimed and works much better, thanks. If you missed this in the theater, give it a shot on DVD.
This is one small part of a much larger series of articles, the entirety of which are listed below. Enjoy!
My Top 5 When Animals Attack Movies
My Top 5 Mummy Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Frankenstein Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Creatures from the Deep Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer Doll Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology movies
My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies
My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies