May 15, 2014

13 Best Giant Monster Movies

Article By: Tony Timpone

Today the city-smashing Godzilla raids again, courtesy of a $200 million reboot that deposits the radiation-spawned creature on American soil once more. Giant monsters (gorillas, ants, dinosaurs, etc.) have been stomping on us puny humans since the dawn of cinema (see the 1925 silent version of The Lost World, a precursor to FX maestro Willis H. O’Brien’s work on King Kong eight years later). Advances in CGI technology make it easier than ever for movie imagineers to create monsters of every size and shape, and this current Godzilla is just the latest example of Hollywood thinking big…really big. So take a trip down monstrous Memory Lane with Chiller as we unveil today’s Friday 13: Best Giant Monster Movies. (Titles arranged according to year of release.)

1. King Kong (1933)

The one that started it all, inspired by a dream by co-director Merian C. Cooper, King Kong dwarfs the competition as one of the most famous—and best—movies of all time, period. The story, about a film crew that sails to an unchartered island populated by hungry dinosaurs and a 24-foot-tall gorilla that rules the roost, has barely aged a day in terms of the wonder and excitement that it continues to evoke (just watch Kong’s amazing brawl with the Tyrannosaurus rex!). Ear-shattering screamer Fay Wray stars as the girl who sends Kong up the Empire State Building and breaks his heart. Remade twice (by showman Dino De Laurentiis in 1976 and Peter Jackson in 2005), but the original King Kong can’t be beat.

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2. Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

While Kong only took in Manhattan during his aborted NYC tour, the gargantuan rhedosaurus of this much loved ’50s sci-fi flick also managed to squeeze in a climactic visit to Brooklyn’s Coney Island (no wonder the borough got voted the nation’s coolest city!). In the film’s fiery finale, the four-legged dinosaur even smashes the amusement park’s death-defying premier roller coaster. Acclaimed stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen created the believable Beast for this movie, loosely based on his buddy Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn.”

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3. Them! (1954)

The Atomic Age instigated a golden age of sci-fi and horror movies throughout the ’50s. Hollywood exploited the populace’s increasing fears of nuclear annihilation with an unending run of movies with massive mutant monsters culled from nature. One of the first, Them!, finds a hive of tank-sized ants chomping their way through the New Mexico desert before heading to Los Angeles. Even today, Them! generates suspense (the first reels unspool like a mystery) and scares (those shrill ant sound FX send chills). The top-notch cast includes James (Shawshank Redemption) Whitmore, James (Gunsmoke) Arness, Edmund (Miracle on 34th Street) Gwenn and a young Leonard Nimoy.

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4. Godzilla (1954)

Released in Japan just nine years after America dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla served as an all-too-painful metaphor for nuclear devastation. Shot in nightmarish black-and-white on a record budget for its time, Godzilla reminds us of the dangers of unchecked science and wanton war lust. The A-bomb-birthed behemoth (convincingly brought to life by a man in a suit) makes short work of Tokyo and the military’s defenses, before succumbing to the ingenious “Oxygen Destroyer.” Despite a succession of increasingly juvenile sequels, the first Godzilla remains a mature and important piece of fantastic film. The global hit created its own genre, kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movies), that continues 60 years later. Avoid the US-edited edition with shoehorned Raymond Burr scenes (as reporter Steve Martin!) and stick with the Japanese original, currently hitting repertory theaters for a special rerelease from Rialto Pictures.

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5. 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

After destroying NYC and San Francisco with Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea, FX ace Ray Harryhausen trashed Rome with the fast-paced 20 Million Miles to Earth. After the first spaceship to Venus crash lands back on Earth near the Sicilian coast, a tiny alien specimen not only survives, but matures in record time. The shrieking 25-foot-tall, three-clawed creature just wants to be left alone to sightsee, but the military and an escaped elephant (!) have other ideas. This all leads to a rousing conclusion in the Coliseum that bests those old gladiatorial dustups.

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6. Tremors (1990)

The accent’s on comedy in this throwback to ’50s-era big-bug movies. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward portray amiable small town handymen itching to escape the doldrums of desert life. Following some strange seismic activities, a clutch of humongous wormlike “Graboids” pop out of the sand to swallow the terrorized locals whole. Just when you thought it was safe to cross the street… With Tremors, director Ron (City Slickers) Underwood keeps the action and fun moving at a brisk clip. Although the underground monsters owe a debt to those steroid-enhanced sandworms of Dune’s arid landscape, Tremors’ practical FX artists deserve kudos for credibly bringing these hungry creatures to life, sans CGI. 

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7. Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion (1996)

In Japan, the 400-foot tall Gamera (a prehistoric, fire-breathing turtle awakened by an atomic test) always ran second fiddle to the more popular Godzilla films. Director Shusuke Kaneko reversed the trend with a stunning trilogy of ’90s Gamera pictures that successfully rebooted the once childish series. Shusuke directs his giant monster mash-ups with style (bolstered by impressive FX work) and also keeps us interested in the story’s human element. In Legion, Gamera faces off against crablike extraterrestrials (scenes with the younger breed give Aliens a run for the money) with a taste for turtle soup. Unlike earlier entries, Shusuke plays the story straight. You’ll be rooting for the titanic turtle too!

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8. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack! (2001)

After breathing life into the Gamera franchise, Shusuke Kaneko helmed one of the best-ever entries in Toho’s long-running Godzilla cycle by returning the Big G to his (her?) darker human-hating roots. Godzilla’s no longer the kid-friendly defender of Earth, but an unstoppable force of nature. Only his previous nemeses, Mothra and three-headed challenger King Ghidorah, can stop Godzilla. The film’s monster tussles rival anything in the WWE, and buffs will revel in GMK’s awesome episodes of realistic mass destruction. Also check out 2004’s over-the-top Godzilla: Final Wars, the last blast of the Japanese kaiju king.

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9. The Host (2006)

Korean director Bong Joon-ho doesn’t keep us waiting for the money shots in this superb giant creature feature. We meet his rampaging, colossal amphibious mutation right at the film’s breathless beginning. The unfortunate byproduct of an evil US chemical company’s illegal dumping (the film does not shy away from political statements) splashes ashore from the polluted Han River to enjoy a people buffet. But besides winning our respect for its remarkable monster moments, The Host introduces a moving human saga to the outlandish drama, as a bumbling father and his dysfunctional family try to singlehandedly rescue the dad’s captured daughter from the slimy creature’s clutches.

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10. Cloverfield (2008)

Produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot company, this low-budget hit adopts the “found footage” style to depict a towering monster demolishing New York City. Five young partygoers record the horrifying action, beginning when the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty lands at their feet. Director Matt (Let Me In) Reeves hooks us from the beginning, teasing with tantalizing glimpses of his skyscraping alienlike invader. Not until Cloverfield’s concluding minutes do we get a good look at the uniquely-designed creature. Give a listen to the film’s rousing closing theme by Michael (Lost) Giacchino, which pays homage to Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube’s memorable music. 

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11. Monsters (2010)

Director Gareth Edwards got his Godzilla 2014 dry run with this evocative $800,000 indie winner. Six years after an accidental incursion of mammoth octopi thingies from outer space, a journalist goes deep into the Mexican “Quarantine Zone” to rescue his boss’ daughter and escort her back to the States. Edwards adopts a quasi-documentary style to tell his story from the POV of his two lead characters, who inevitably fall in love while the creature chaos unfolds before them in their mad rush to the border. In a twist we didn’t see coming, the film’s luminescent beings also display amorous feelings for each other in Monsters’ awe-inspiring finish. Incredibly, accomplished FX-man Edwards shot his stunning creature sequences on his home computer!

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12. Grabbers (2012)

Though heavily influenced by Jaws, The Blob and Tremors, this entertaining Irish horror comedy provides enough of its own charm and a surfeit of likeable characters to please creature connoisseurs. A substitute police woman arrives on a remote Irish island just as an alien aggressor takes up residence in the nearby waters. Before long, the Kraken wannabe begins sucking the locals dry of their blood, and an approaching storm will provide the expanding supersquid easier access to land. But the villagers discover that the more alcohol they drink, the less appetizing they become to the tentacled ET! Irish stereotypes aside, Grabbers will grab you thanks to its appealing mix of mirth and monsters.

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13. Pacific Rim (2013)

Genre specialist Guillermo (Hellboy) del Toro plants a big fat wet one on the lips of giant monster fans with this paean to kaiju cinema. In the future, a race of Brobdingnagian baddies slithers from the ocean depths to squash mankind under their scaly feet. Enter Earth’s united platoon of similarly-sized robots (controlled by human jockeys tucked within) to take on the interdimensional comers one-on-one. Del Toro spectacularly stages these crushing bouts with no expense spared (poor Japan takes another hit), though Pacific Rim’s people subplots come across as corny at times. But we came to see those immense monsters, and they don’t disappoint. Their distinctive designs would give H.P. Lovecraft and H.R. Giger nightmares.

For those hankering for more megamonster mayhem, put the better-produced ’90s period Godzilla installments and the B-movie flashbacks Deep Rising (1998), The Mist (2007), Infestation (2009) and Big Ass Spider (2013) in your queue.

With Godzilla’s origin story now told for the third time, which take do you rate the best? Do any other giant monster movies (literally) rock your world? Run on down to our Facebook page or go on Twitter using #Friday13 to let us know!

David Madison’s The End of the Night Internet radio show recently featured FANGORIA editor emeritus Tony Timpone, which you can find here.

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