Top 10 Creature Features

Jaws

All top ten lists are highly subjective, so let’s just be clear here: these are MY top 10 creature features, not the results of scientifically sound survey or research.  Oh, and I limited my selection to ‘inhumanoid’ creatures, so humanoid monsters like Hannibal Lecter and Dracula are not in this list.  Obviously, not everyone’s favorite creatures will be included — that’s what the comments section is for, so comment away! Who knows, maybe I forgot one…

10. The Relic (1997)

The Relic is actually pretty standard as far as monster movies go, but sometimes it’s nice to see a standard monster movie done really, really well. The film stars Penelope Ann Miller and Tom Sizemore as a museum scientist and a detective trying to solve a series of murders connected to a recent shipment the museum received from South America. Turns out the shipment contained a deadly monster/god/thing designed by the great Stan Winston Studio that gets to run around killing people through most of the movie’s second half. The Relic may not surprise you in any way, but it should fully satisfy your monster movie cravings unless, of course, you’re a jaded asshole. And even if you are a jaded asshole, you’ll at least be happy to see Oscar-winner Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously) in a supporting role (I could listen to that woman read the back of  shampoo bottles). Hell, even Siskel & Ebert gave The Relic two thumbs up, and if I remember correctly, they said that seeing the monster running while on fire was just too cool to ignore. And I agree. The only thing better than a monster movie is a flaming monster movie.

9.    Jurassic Park (1993)

Everyone loves dinosaurs, and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s book is still the best dinosaur movie ever made. Don’t get me wrong — The Land Before Time is cute and all, and I cry every time Littlefoot’s mama goes toes up in the rain, but Jurassic Park‘s T-Rex paddock attack sequence is probably my favorite action sequence from the ’90s. Stan Winston (notice a trend already?) provided the live-action dinosaur animatronics and Industrial Light and Magic provided the groundbreaking digital dinos, ushering in a whole new era of special effects wizardry. The film has a handful of memorable scares, but the paddock attack sequence, where a Tyrannosaurus Rex terrorizes the people inside two stranded range rovers, takes the cake and sends this movie over the edge into monster movie heaven. Any sequence that starts with a dead goat on the sunroof and ends with a dead lawyer in old T-Rex’s belly should get every monster movie fan’s seal of approval. And the sequence is so damned good, it doesn’t even need John Williams’ help — it’s entirely un-scored. I know I’m going on and on about this one scene, but without it, JP wouldn’t be nearly as cool.

8.    Cloverfield (2008)

Don’t roll your eyes at my blog post, motherfucker. I know a lot of people who trash talk this movie, and I don’t like found-footage movies either, at least not as a general rule. I’m also becoming a bit of a J. J. Abrams hater (write yourself into impossible corners much?) But if you’re going to make another found-footage movie, at least make it as entertaining as Cloverfield. I sat in the back of the theater when I saw Cloverfield, so I didn’t get the headaches from the hand-held videography like other people did. If that’s your beef with Cloverfield, suck it up and re-watch the movie at home. What you might notice the second time around is a film admittedly far less original than found footage touchstone The Blair Witch Project, but far, far more scary — at least for me. I was right there in New York, not knowing what the frig was going on, people dying everywhere, monsters walking around everywhere — big monsters, little monsters, buildings collapsing, things screeching in the dark, people getting diseased and exploding… what can I say? Cloverfield delivered my nightmare vision of the apocalypse. And it should have closed the book on the found-footage phenomenon, too.  But it didn’t, and so I will continue to bemoan found footage movies, because every indie filmmaker with a camcorder thinks they can make one. But they never make them this good. So stop hating on Cloverfield, and give the movie its fucking due. And don’t bitch at me about The Host. I saw The Host, and it’s not as good.

7.    The Fly II (1989)

The Fly II is a sequel to a much better film, but try to think of it as something very separate from the David Cronenberg film in both content and tone.  Cronenberg’s film is as psychological as it is visceral, and horrific on oh-so-many levels. But while Cronenberg’s film certainly has elements of a monster movie in it, the 1989 sequel really embraces its monster movie roots and gives a big valentine to monster movie fans. Makeup effects guru Chris Walas directed the sequel and also created the monster — and it’s amazing work. The last twenty minutes of the movie is wall to wall monster movie mayhem that will make you feel thirteen again. People melting in fly vomit? Check. Skull crushed under a freight elevator? Check. Horrible, sickening genetic splicing experiment gone awry? Check. And you know that unspoken but generally accepted movie rule, ‘Thou shalt not hurt the animals’? Well, The Fly II pisses on that rule in one of the single-most heart-wrenching and disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. EVER. Dog lovers, you have been warned.

6.    Gremlins (1984)

This is the only silly creature feature on my list, because I generally like my monsters to be scary and serious. But there’s something about the gremlins’ antics that I find endearing. I find myself rooting for the protagonists, but also for the little green meanies. In a way, the town and its citizens in Gremlins are so clean-cut and pure that I really want the monsters to give them all a good what-for. At least when the humans kill the gremlins, they get creative on their scaly asses. The standout scene for most fans is Mom’s kitchen stand-off with three gremlins. Actress Frances Lee McCain purees one beast in the blender, sprays another with raid and blows him up in the microwave, and knifes to death the third one. Pretty bad-ass for a thankless mom role, eh? I also enjoy seeing the creatures torment an evil banking heiress (Polly Holiday), first by singing her dreadfully out-of-tune Christmas carols and then by rigging her stair climber to blast her half-way across the neighborhood. I’m a huge Gremlins fan, and I’m just scraping the surface here. Read my longer review here.

5.    Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

The Gill Man is a latecomer to Universal Studios’ stable of classic movie monsters, but damn if he ain’t the sexiest of the bunch. Admit it — if you had to sleep with one of the monsters, who would it be? The film is really well-paced, with a terrific monster design and memorable locations (even if the Amazon does look peculiarly like Florida). The centerpiece scene for me is the one where Julie Adams takes a dip in the lagoon and the creature decides to join her in some kinky synchronized swimming. I like to think of the creature as the male id incarnate, lurking beneath the dark waters of human sexuality. Sue me, but I think it’s nice when your B-monster movie can warrant some thesis papers in psychology class.

4.    An American Werewolf in London (1981)

While we’re on the topic of the male id, how about them werewolves? John Landis took a stab at the ultimate erection metaphor (his words, not mine) and produced what is STILL (don’t argue with me, because you’re wrong) the very finest werewolf movie ever made. And honestly, I don’t expect to see a better one as long as I live. Any werewolf movie that treats lycanthropy like a superpower completely misses the point (and pisses me off). Landis gets it absolutely right here, capturing all the pain, agony, regret and doom that being a werewolf is all about. Make-up effects wizard Rick Baker and actor David Naughton work with Landis to create what is far and away the most compelling and horrifying werewolf transformation scene you’ll ever see. And it works because you feel it — you feel how painful it is. And you also have to love how Landis undercuts the tragedy with a dark sense of humor. In fact, I think this film contains my single-most favorite scene from any horror movie — a scene that embodies everything horror is about. It comes just prior to the final act, as our doomed hero (Naughton) sits in a porno theatre discussing with the corpses of all his victims the best way to off himself. Horror fans, this is what sublimity looks like.

3.    The Thing (1982)

Audiences in 1982 freaked the fuck out over The Thing, one of the most visceral horror films ever made (still to this day, I’d argue). But visceral thrills don’t make the stuff of legend. John Carpenter married the visual thrills with psychological dread and terror, as well as an impenetrable atmosphere of foreboding that, in summary effort, leaves you with little choice but to completely shit your pants. Like, all the way. Unfortunately, the film suffered at the box office, unable to escape the shadow of E.T.  The films couldn’t be any more different, and I adore both of them. But where E.T. uplifts your spirit and renews your faith in humanity, The Thing digs you a grave and tosses you in it screaming. Together, these films were the perfect point and counter-point in a year now considered the greatest ever for sci-fi/fantasy/horror fans. Makeup effects artist Rob Bottin, only 21 at the time, worked himself to clinical exhaustion to produce some of The Thing‘s most spectacularly gory effects, stuff that holds up 100% today, without any CGI whatsoever. Ever seen a man’s head detach itself from his body, grow spider legs and scamper away? Well, you’ll see it in The Thing. Send your dry cleaning bill to John Carpenter.

2.    Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead is a revenge fable that features a great performance from leading man Lance Henriksen, more spooky atmosphere than you can shake a stick at, and what I consider the single-greatest movie monster ever designed and constructed for the silver screen. The monster towers above the other characters, performed by an actor on stilts with arm extensions, creating a fresh new shape and silhouette that one-ups the vast majority of other monster movies — a man-in-a-suit monster this is not! Director Stan Winston photographs the beast in smoke, blowing leaves, and flashes of lightning, further adding to its grandeur. What’s even more remarkable about Pumpkinhead is that Winston wasn’t content just to make an awesome monster. The story is compelling, featuring a main character driven at first by revenge, and later by regret, giving Pumpkinhead more shades of gray than you find in most creature features. And the rural backwoods environment in this film is palpably real. Spectacular sets include a witch’s cottage in a swamp and a remote pumpkin patch where the title creature sleeps until summoned. Add in creepy performances from the film’s supporting players, rich blue/red contrast lighting, and a harmonica-driven synth score, and you have a magical film I return to several times each year.

1. Tie:   Jaws (1975) and Alien (1979)

I can’t choose which one I like better, and I don’t have to!  So how about a tie between the two greatest monster movies ever made: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Scott’s ‘haunted house in space’ fires on all cylinders, featuring what is indisputably the most original monster design in decades, courtesy of the sick and twisted H.R. Giger, who sees the world through genital-colored glasses. We can bring Freud back into the equation when we consider the phallic shape of the alien’s head, or all the bodily penetration and impregnation going on in the movie. One of the things that put Alien on the cutting edge of horror is that it exploited the horrors of pregnancy and birth. And not just for women — a face hugger will deep throat any guy or gal. Just ask John Hurt. The creature is given a peculiar reproductive cycle that creates mystery and advances the plot — so the monster’s not just in the movie, the monster IS the movie. And when’s the last time you ever saw a monster movie this gorgeous? Scott’s staging is beautiful, the framing exquisite, the design fresh and intriguing. The cast deliver surprisingly realistic performances and Jerry Goldsmith’s experimental score keeps things off kilter and far from comfortable. The film is famous for its centerpiece chest-burster scene, where Hurt dies on the dining room table after giving birth to a bouncing baby xenomorph, but the wonderful death scenes in Alien are mere punctuation in Scott’s dramatic build-up. What I love most about Alien is that it’s a long, slow, dark discovery that you can soak in. And once you’re perfectly marinated in mystery, then you earn that monster moment. The best kills come at the apex of that delicious creeping terror.

Like Alien, Jaws is also a well-oiled suspense machine. And what you’ve heard about the movie over and over again is absolutely true: it’s scary because of what you don’t see. In the opening scene, your imagination fills in the gaps regarding what type of creature could possibly be thrashing that poor midnight swimmer back and forth like a rag doll in the water. And what’s even more surprising, is that when Spielberg finally does reveal the monster half-way through the movie, it doesn’t disappoint! So Jaws teaches two vital lessons to monster movie makers:  withhold seeing the monster as much as possible; and when you do show the monster, make sure it delivers. Jaws is also propelled by a great deal of anxiety within our main protagonist, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider). The fact that no one will heed his warnings ratchets up the tension until that bloodcurdling moment at the beach, when the shark gobbles up a small boy right in front of Brody’s eyes. The film is also much loved for its depiction of three disparate characters at odds with one another, but driven by a singular need to destroy the monster. Their relationship builds to what is probably the ultimate grace note for any monster movie, a scene where the three men show each other their scars and exchange stories — a moment of male bonding, a quiet before the storm — before one or more of them meet their untimely demises.

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About Scott_S

Scott studied film and sociology at Indiana University and is currently the video producer for a large publishing company. He is the director of several independent films, including "House of Hope," "Off the Beaten Path," "The Day Joe Left," and "Found." For more about Scott, visit www.scottschirmer.com. Scott is also one of the principal organizers of the Dark Carnival Film Festival. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)

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