The monster movie: it's a genre that goes back to the beginning of Hollywood. Classic monsters like King Kong and Godzilla never really go away; they always come back. Plus, there is a whole slew of classic b-movies like Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Blob that helped define movies of their era.
Today, the monsters are bigger and scarier than ever, but many of those classics still remain among the best. There is a really an art to making a scary monster. They don’t have to just be larger than life, as sometimes the scariest thing about them is when you don’t even see them.
So here is our list of the best of the best, in no particular order, starting with one of the greatest movies of them all, and it's not just as a monster movie either.
This is the movie that made Steven Spielberg famous. Jaws remains just as terrifying and incredible as it was almost 45 years ago when it was first released. It scared people out of the water then, and it’s still doing it today. No one goes swimming in the ocean without thinking about what could be lurking in the dark under them, and that’s all thanks to the shark in Jaws.
One of the scariest things about Jaws is how you actually very rarely see the shark in the film. The very THOUGHT of a killer Great White like the one in Jaws is enough to scare the wits out of most people. By the time Roy Schieder, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw do finally track down the shark, audiences are so on edge about it, the payoff of finally getting a good look at the shark is incredible, even if the special effects and the robot shark seem a little dated. It’s still one of the scariest monsters in movie history.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Pacific Rim, directed by the always brilliant Guillermo del Toro, is a modern riff on the classic Godzilla flick. A rift in the ocean floor has opened up and with it, monsters from the middle of the Earth are emerging and destroying cities on the Pacific.
With an all-star cast led by Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, and Ron Pearlman, the beautifully shot movie, as you'd expect from del Toro, is a pure joy to watch. It has everything anyone would want in a Godzilla-like movie. Even the names of the monsters, “Kaijus,” are a tribute to the classic Japanese giant monster movies from the '50s and '60s. As to be expected, Pacific Rim has a sequel, though it didn't live up to the original.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park came in the middle of an incredible run by director Steven Spielberg and it immediately ranked among his best work when it was released in 1993. The original that spawned an enormous franchise and still has us holding on to our butts a quarter of a century later remains one of the best.
Jurassic Park changed the game when it came to special effects in monster movies. Even today, when you watch the movie, it’s amazing how life-like and realistic the dinosaurs look. The days of cheesy looking giant lizards and gorillas were definitely over. Just like when the original Star Wars rewrote the book on special effects in science fiction, so too did Jurassic Park in monster movies.
In the 1980s, a decade packed with larger-than-life action stars, one name rose way above the rest: Arnold Schwarzenegger. With a run of hits like the Conan movies, Terminator, Commando, The Running Man, and, of course, his classic monster movie, Predator, Ah-nold was king of the box office musclemen.
Predator is everything anyone would ever want in a monster movie, filled with action, bad acting, accidentally hilarious dialogue and one awesome monster, that, like the dinos in Jurassic Park, would launch an enduring franchise that audiences still love today. That monster, The Predator, is as scary as they come. An alien from an unknown planet that can make itself almost completely invisible, but don’t worry, if it bleeds, they can kill it.
Yet another classic monster movie franchise, one that eventually cross-pollinated with the Predator series, really got its start with 1986’s Aliens. Of course, it’s not the first in the series (that would be Ridley Scott’s Alien), but it is the one that turned the franchise into a box office smashing behemoth. While James Cameron takes a hard time from series film buffs these days, there is no question that he was on top his game in this one.
Set 57 years after the first Alien movie, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is discovered floating in her ship in stasis by a mining crew. After a series of events force Ripley to accompany a crew of tough marines to a colony in space, all hell breaks loose as the alien and its offspring reek havoc down on everything, killing almost everything, except Ripley, of course, in its way. Aliens is scary and filled with silly (but still awesome) dialogue just like a good monster movie should be.
Cloverfield is a very 21st century kind of monster movie. Using the “found footage” approach to show the attacks and, more often, the reaction to the attacks, Cloverfield does one thing really well, it keeps the monster hidden, with just enough teases to having us begging to finally see it. Shaky, blurring footage is all any really sees for much of the movie. It’s also a classic Kaiju-type monster that destroys everything in its path, including the Brooklyn Bridge and much of Lower Manhattan.
Like a lot of other movies on this list, this one also launched a successful franchise. It may not be on the level of some of the others, but it has spawned two sequels, though it may be a while before there is another one, as the most recent Cloverfield film, The Cloverfield Paradox, wasn’t well received. But don’t worry about that, the original is still epic.
Gremlins is a different kind of monster movie, as this list goes, because it’s not one giant monster like so many on here, but instead it’s a whole mess of nightmarish lizard-like evil little jerks that run rampant all over town terrorizing the citizens of Kingston Falls. It’s also a black comedy set at Christmas, which could put it on a couple other “best of” lists as well.
The monsters start as cute furry mogwais, of course, but once they multiply after getting wet and turning into the malicious Gremlins upon eating after midnight, the destruction is on! Plus, the movie is filled with creative cameos and a cast made up of some actors that go back to the some of the classic '60s monster movies, like Jackie Joseph and Dick Miller, who starred in the original Little Shop Of Horrors plus lots more, and Belinda Balaski, who was in The Howling and the cult classic Piranha.
The Fly (1986)
Director David Cronenberg is mostly known for doing weird, small and quirky movies like Naked Lunch and Scanners. 1986’s The Fly ended being his biggest commercial success to date and it spawned a sequel, a comic book and even an opera, though Cronenberg wasn’t involved in the sequel or the comic book.
Based on a short story by George Langelaan, which also inspired a version of the story on film in 1958, The Fly stars Jeff Goldblum as a scientist that accidently genetically merges with a fly. The movie is more of a psychological thriller than pure monster movie, as Goldblum tries to figure how to reverse his DNA curse, but only continues to make things worse for himself until there is almost nothing left of the man and he is almost all fly.
The original Tremors, starring Kevin Bacon and Reba McEntire, was a bit of a bomb at the box office when it was released in 1990, but over the years, the movie cultivated a huge cult following because of its humor and it’s over the top, ridiculous action. Because of its enormous success on video, a straight-to-video franchise was born.
In the original, the members of a small desert town in Nevada are terrorized by an underground monsters, called Graboids, that, like the best monsters movies, are unseen for most of the movie. It’s almost like a Jaws set in the desert with the terrifying monster lurking below the rock and dirt instead of the water. It causes the same helpless feeling that shark did, like, you’re in ITS territory now, so watch out for cracks in the desert and large tongues emerging from them.
King Kong (1933)
We end the list where the genre arguably began, with the king of them all, King Kong. There is no more iconic scene than the one in King Kong when the giant ape is climbing up the Empire State Building searching for safe place for Ann, played by the one and only Fay Wray, the human he has fallen for.
While that scene is the most remember, the rest of the movie is also filled with monsters. Kong is discovered on “Skull Island” where he rules over the few human inhabitants and a number of huge dinosaurs that confront the search party looking for Kong, to bring back to New York as a circus attraction.
King Kong has since taken a spot among the greatest movies of all time and not only created a franchise that has lasted almost a century, but was also at the nexus of the whole monster movie genre and for that it, and Kong, will forever be on lists like this.
You can be sure that until there will be many more monster movies in the future and for that we are grateful, because the genre is one of the true classics, with a shapeshifting ability to fit into any generation.