By Elizabeth Eckhart
Human beings have gotten to play “top dog” in the food chain for a little while now, so it stands to reason that the idea of having our proverbial throne usurped by a giant lizard/insect/lizard-insect hybrid/monkey is more than a little unsettling. That is perhaps why audiences are drawn to monster films. They raise the question: “What happens when humans get hunted for sport by larger life-forms?” And beyond whatever they might illuminate about mankind’s existential dread… cheesy monster movies are also really fun to watch while getting hammered with friends.
So! In light of the upcoming Godzilla remake (slated for release on May 16th) here is a look at the best monsters to have graced the big screen.
Director Larry Cohen’s Q — The Winged Serpent follows the exploits of Quetzacoatl, an ancient Aztec, winged, lizard-like deity who decides to vacation in New York City indefinitely. He decides to stay at the top of the Chrysler Building in downtown Manhattan, and dines on tourists. How posh! The film doesn’t take itself very seriously, and it shouldn’t. The special effects/animation by David Allen is a nice homage to classic Japanese monster films, or the classic stop-motion animations from Ray Harryhausen. It’s an often over-looked eighties monster film, and bears revisiting! It’s difficult to find for online streaming, but thankfully, it is available on DVD.
First appearing in 1956 in director Ishiro Honda’s Rodan (originally released in the United States as Rodan! The Flying Monster!), Rodan is a large, flying pterodactyl-like beast who is accidentally unearthed by a mining crew, and is extremely destructive to Japanese civilian communities after he makes his initial escape. He ended up starring in a number of subsequent Japanese monster films, frequently squaring off against Godzilla, (whom we will discuss more in-depth in just a moment). One of Rodan’s most recent film appearances was in Godzilla: Final Wars, which saw Rodan and Godzilla going toe-to-toe for the first time in decades. A compilation of the earlier films is now available on DVD.
3. King Kong
This lumbering ape (and name-sake of Donkey Kong) was first introduced to viewing audiences in Merian Cooper’s seminal King Kong in 1933. And I know the word “seminal” gets thrown around frivolously, but just think about all of the remakes and spin-offs it spawned. The story follows an expedition to Skull Island, where explorers find a massive ape that islanders worship as a god. They capture the ape, and float him back to New York, where he gets his own one-man show —not bad for his first gig in Manhattan! To the grave disappointment of the show’s producers, the monkey gets sort of pissed-off about being shackled and humiliated in front of a large crowd. So pissed off, that he goes on a rampage throughout the city, which culminates with him plucking the woman of his dreams out of a window and climbing the Empire State Building. It’s a wonderful film, made all the more wonderful by the stop-motion animation done by Willis O’Brien. A special edition blu-ray of the film was recently released, and it still screens regularly on TV.
Jack Arnold’s classic The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) is another great socially conscious, cold-war era monster movie. In the first film, a group of scientists from the United States are sailing in the Amazonian rainforest, hoping to find humanity’s most primitive ancestor — “the missing link,” as it were. And, much to their chagrin, they find it: an amphibious fish-man (“Gill-Man”, if you will), who isn’t especially fond of people (especially when they’re hell bent on abducting him to conduct experiments on him in a lab). Sort of similar to King Kong, in that both films deal with exotic creatures who are abducted for cruel, opportunistic purposes. It’s an enjoyable film, whether you want to engage with it as a comment about the hazards of man “playing god” and tampering with nature as it suits his whims, or as some sort of allegory for colonialism, or simply as an entertaining (albeit, flawed) fifties monster movie. You can find copies in 2-D, but the film was originally released in 3-D, and really should be experienced that way, if you should manage to find a screening in 3-D…
The amphibious, towering, fire-breathing lizard monster first appeared in Ishiro Honda’s film Godzilla King of the Monsters (1954). The film was an allegory for the devastation wrought upon civilian communities in Japan during World War II bombing campaigns. The creature emerges from the Pacific Ocean to destroy Tokyo. When the film premiered for North American audiences, scenes were shot with actor Raymond Burr to be integrated into the cut (reminiscent of the editing technique that Carl Reiner employed in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid). Although originally depicted as a villain, he became a peculiar heroic figure in later films, and even had his own Saturday morning cartoon show at one point. There were several Godzilla films that were streamable on Netflix until very recently. Thankfully, many of them are still available through DTV and Hulu.