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Feature Article

Alien
Dir. Ridley Scott, 1979, USA

In my mind, there are two things that make up a great monster movie – a memorable and distinctive monster, and good storyline/filmmaking regardless of whether there’s the exclusion of a monster or not. Let’s face it, a good movie is simply a good movie, and that even applies to the so-bad-it’s-good style of filmmaking that Roger Corman pioneered so ably in the monster movie genre. But I digress…

Alien is perfection exemplified – a script as tight as a gymnast’s buttocks, an unforgettable ensemble performance perfectly cast, a moody and unobtrusive music score, an atmosphere so repressive it’ll give you claustrophobia while in the comfy confines of your couch, and a monster that, until the release of this particular film, the likes of which had never been seen before (thank you, H.R. Giger).

The universal consensus among filmmakers is the ‘less is more’ formula especially applies to monster movies. Give them only glimpses and you’ll keep the monster delicatessen fresh and – more importantly – scary. It’s hard to see Alien in this light considering the sequels, parodies and repeat viewings of the film, but maybe – just maybe – if you’re lucky, you can cast your mind back to when you first saw it, and you’ll remember the chills that come so rarely in this climate of formulaic fodder.

The Thing
Dir. John Carpenter, 1982, USA

It might seem odd to sandwich what is ostensibly an Alien rip-off in a Top Ten Monster Movies of All Time, but to impose such a harsh label on The Thing would be akin to criminality. The plot might be similar to Alien, the ensemble dynamics comparable and the claustrophobia disturbingly reminiscent, yet this film stands firmly on its own two feet – and gives most other movies a butt-kicking in the process.

Whereas Alien solidified Scott’s career, The Thing almost sent John Carpenter’s down the gurgler, which appears massively unfair considering it was lambasted for being too real, and too violent, and too far removed from the original version of the film, The Thing from Another World (1951). What Carpenter and his crew succeeded in doing was create a monster movie that was a little too sophisticated for its time, but that has also enabled it to stand the test of time and remain as one of Carpenter’s best filmmaking legacies.

In terms of monster, this ‘thing’ takes the indescribable into further realms of indescriptability (is that a word?). Imagine a monster that looks like nothing except for the being that it’s replicating and, when not in a particular being, like a big mushy amalgamation of everything it’s ever imitated. Yep, pretty interesting…

The Exorcist
Dir. William Friedkin, 1973, USA

The day that I do not find The Exorcist terrifying is the day when the worms munch on my flesh six feet under. Pushing the envelope into moral unacceptability at every turn, William Friedkin’s movie continues to confound with the slack-jawed affect of ‘did they just do that?’

Not only are the profanities and blasphemies served with maximum spice, but the monster – a sweet and innocent 12-year-old girl inhabited by a demon who proclaims to be the devil himself – is a true original, and one that has never been successfully duplicated, despite attempts (including the possession of ‘Marlena’ in US daytime soap Days of our Lives). Given its cerebral pacing as well (something unfathomable in the current zeitgeist), it is testament to Friedkin that such a movie continues to resound in the public consciousness.

It’s hard to say why Carpenter suffered such a cruel blow with The Thing and Friedkin seemed to romp through relatively unscathed with The Exorcist, but them’s the breaks, I guess. One thing is for sure, The Exorcist is A-grade in so many respects of the qualification.

Nosferatu
Dir. F.W. Murnau, 1922, Germany

When casting the mind back to the roots of monster movies, a certain film always jumps to mind: Nosferatu. For those less tolerant with humble forms of film technology, the fact that this flick is – shock, horror – silent could be distasteful. Yes, that means no sound or, in some releases of the film, it equates with a soundtrack courtesy of Queen. But an open mind and a penchant for great monsters will soon overcome any such hurdles.

As the character Nosferatu – recognisable to many as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, including the recipients of Stoker’s estate who sued and nearly successfully buried the film forever – Max Schreck is completely formidable. In fact, his role as the bloodsucker was so realistic, and consequently so creepy, that Willem Dafoe actually deemed to suggest Schreck was a vampire while playing the veteran actor in a film loosely based on the making of Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire (2000).

Unlike the most popular clichés of Dracula coined by Bela Lugosi, Schreck’s vampire was hardly alluring and seductive – he was more closely aligned to those parasitical, infectious beings that you’d find in a sewer. He had a bald head, talons as fingers, pointy ears and, rather than the usual incisors, two pointy front teeth like a rabbit or a rat. One look and he’ll be haunting your worst nightmares.

Bride of Frankenstein
Dir. James Whale, 1932, USA

Just as Nosferatu informed a whole filmmaking generation that followed it and continues to do so, Bride of Frankenstein is one of the most influential monster movies of all time – and with good reason.

Many will argue that Frankenstein (the first film of which Bride is a sequel and both from the fertile mind of James Whale) should flesh out this Top Ten, but there’s something about Bride – in the extension of themes established in Frankenstein, in the introduction of the monster’s vocal capabilities, in the ingenuous special effects and addition of colourful characters – that makes it, to me, the superior film. Although I dare never take any kudos away from Frankenstein.

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster – in fact, Karloff as any monster, even ‘The Mummy’ – is something that deserves to be venerated through future generations. Say to anyone, what is the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the word ‘monster’, and they’re likely to visualise Karloff’s square-headed mug. It’s easy to take this monster for granted because he’s become so ingrained in popular iconology, but let’s always remember to salute the genius that is Frankenstein…

Forbidden Planet
Dir. Fred McLeod Wilcox, 1956, USA

The 1950s were the golden age for the monster movie, most notably, in all its B-grade glory. With the atomic paranoia at mushroom cloud heights, the time proved perfect for birthing a whole new breed of monsters – those big, ridiculous ones, of which Them! is a notably stylish departure. But I digress again…

Forbidden Planet isn’t the most obvious monster movie of the time, but nevertheless is a multi-layered and intriguing filmmaking experience with a ‘monster’ that is kind of invisible… Yep, that’s right. You can’t see it, although you can when it crosses electrical boundaries, but then it’s not exactly an invisible monster… OK, let’s just leave it at that. The reason for abstraction is to not spoil the viewing experience for anyone who may never have seen this fantastic film before.

Apart from such a cool monster, Forbidden Planet boasts some stunning painted backdrops, an ‘out there’ soundtrack of electronic bips and blips and a thickly layered storyline. Well worthy of inclusion in any movie ‘best of’.

The Host
Dir. Bong Joon-Ho, 2006, South Korea

Just when you thought the monster movie had been replaced by the likes of sadistic slaughter films, along comes this little gem from the unlikely shores of the Han River in Korea. A monster movie from Asia is not such an unlikely prospect, considering this is the region that gave rise to such monster legends as Godzilla, but it had been some time since an Asian monster movie had truly captured the imagination – so much so, it became the highest grossing film of all time in South Korea.

In recalling his film, Bong Joon-ho believes it’s the human story – that of a bumbling, no-hoper family trying to rescue their daughter from the clutches of a gross chemical abomination – that makes it such a successful and accessible movie. But glory shouldn’t be stripped away from the monster. One scoot through the DVD extras and it’s evident that a lot of thought went into creating this Darwinian aberration, constructed uncomfortably so the amphibious thing would have actually been in pain. This is a computer-generated character that, um, comes with ‘character’… bumbling, stumbling tripping and falling, it’s perfect in its imperfections.

Jaws
Dir. Steven Spielberg, 1975, USA

If anyone doubted the viability of monster movies, Jaws is the proof that monsters can be big business. The film’s conception was fraught with every sort of disaster imaginable – make sure you see a ‘making of’ to appreciate the catastrophic extent – but Jaws went on to wage a killing at the international box office, even coining the word ‘blockbuster’.

When flipping through the Rolodex of unique monsters, the shark in Jaws might not even make the list. It’s a shark, after all, something we’re all fairly familiar with, even though it may be a shark of the super-sized and super-intelligent variety. The thing that gives Jaws its bite is the shark’s unpredictability and cunning – you’re never entirely sure when it’s going to strike (that is, until John Williams’ signature theme is cued) or how it’s going to strike. Similarly to the repressive atmosphere of Alien and The Thing, the climactic final third of the film occurs on a dinky boat in which the three inhabitants are bobbing like stunned mullets at the mercy of their invisible hunter.

People like to pick at the special effects of Jaws, but I think that’s just the ‘scaredies’ way of projecting false bravado… so no one really knows how scared they are.

The Fly
Dir. David Cronenberg, 1986, UK/Canada/USA

To David Cronenberg, it appears we’re all the most abominable monsters. Having invented the concept of ‘body horror’, he takes it to its greatest mutation with this film – The Fly – another remake that, along the lines of Carpenter’s The Thing, ventures dramatically off the track of its original.

It seems I can’t help but constantly reinforce the greatness of Alien and The Thing over and over again and, in mentioning The Fly in this Top Ten list, characteristics of those two aforementioned films resurface again – the simplicity, the character depth, the claustrophobia, the brilliance…

In The Fly, the monster is undeniably the main character (played by Jeff Goldblum) a Jekyll-and-Hyde scientist who accidentally blends his own physical form with a household fly that gradually takes over his whole body. Just as Frankenstein capitalised on the monster-as-sympathetic-being premise, The Fly has its eccentric male lead devolve into an athletic, spewing, sexually voracious giant insect that, even when in complete humanised fly form, manages to tweak at the heartstrings. Impressive.

Ginger Snaps
Dir. John Fawcett, 2000, Canada

Ginger Snaps represents my fondness for the very popular Buffy-esque style of filmmaking in which dialogue is peppered with Valley Girl expressions and the ‘monsterness’ seems a natural extension, or expression, of high school life (see 2006’s Teeth by Mitchell Lichtenstein for another thoroughly enjoyable example).

What’s so poetic about Ginger Snaps is the metaphoric quality of its monster. The emo-like lead teen gets literally sniffed out by a werewolf with the arrival of her menstrual cycle, which also sees her slowly turn into a hairy, horny lycanthrope. Maybe I come from the female perspective here, but the correlation of puberty to something far more sinister and beastly really appeals to my sensibilities. Not only that, but Ginger just doesn’t transform into some mangy hound – her werewolf form is impressively large, rogueish and unmerciful, even in the case of her own sister.

This is a marvellous instance of modern gothic that will have any boy in the audience appreciating “just so you know, the words ‘just’ and ‘cramps’, they don’t go together.” Watch her, she bites…

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