While I have love for every subgenre of horror, I have to admit that there’s one in particular that holds a special place in my heart: The monster movie.
Or, if you prefer, the creature-feature.
Sure, we all know and love the big names, like Godzilla and King Kong. Those of you with particularly refined taste may also be fans of loving derivatives like Cloverfield. But there’s an entire cinematic bestiary of beasts, mutants, and monsters of all shapes and sizes stomping their way through the intersection of science fiction and horror cinema to discover. Japanese film history alone contains hundreds, if not thousands, of giant-sized kaiju features, destroying Tokyo more times than can ever be counted.
In short, you’ve got a lot of options if you’re ever in the mood for some man vs monster mayhem. Here’s just a few of my favorites that would be perfect for your Halloween watchlists this year.
I feel like this movie flew relatively under everyone’s radar, which is a damn shame considering its surprising level of quality. Released in 2020, from Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin director William Eubank (but don’t hold that against him), Underwater is a tense, claustrophobic monster movie masquerading as a disaster film. The crew of a near-future undersea drilling platform experiences a catastrophic seismic event which sends the structure into absolute chaos. The constant threat of drowning, darkness, and crushing pressure are scary enough in their own right, but with the addition of some mysterious, unknown life forms scuttling about on the sea floor, it becomes an absolute nightmare for the crew of survivors. Led by Kristen Stewart doing her best Alien 3 Sigourney Weaver, this is one part Cloverfield, one part The Poseidon Adventure, and just a dash of Deep Blue Sea, all filtered through an eerie, Lovecraftian lens. If you have a fear of deep water, maybe stay away from this one.
I debated whether or not to call this a creature-feature or not, since it’s never really 100% what exactly the titular organism is. Half of its DNA seems squarely rooted in zombie territory, while the other half steals (lovingly) from The Thing. The film follows two couples, one on an idyllic camping trip and the other on the run from the law, as they find themselves trapped in a gas station being besieged by a parasitic entity that enter the host through cuts and abrasions, and that can animate individual body parts as well as entire human bodies. It’s the horror movie equivalent of a sitcom bottle episode, largely taking place in one location for budgetary purposes, and yet manages to weave an extremely satisfying and fast-paced narrative even in such a limited space. Plus, the character work here is top notch. Avoid Splinter if you’re squeamish, though: This definitely ventures into body horror territory.
Let it never be said that the Americans have the market cornered on monster mayhem. From Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal (who would later bring us the excellent Autopsy of Jane Doe and shockingly competent Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark), this horror-fantasy dark comedy presents itself as a mockumentary exposing the day-to-day life of a government-sanctioned Troll hunter in Norway. Yes, dear viewers, trolls are real, and they’re a absolute nuisance. The film is a gripping, hilarious take on the found-footage format, one that shines a light on the oft-overlooked world of Scandinavian folklore. Probably the film on this list with the least amount of scares, Trollhunter is nonetheless worthy of your monster-movie marathons. It’s an absolute blast.
A genuine contender for one of the most enjoyable movies ever made, Tremors is basically Jaws if it took place entirely on land, with a cast of wise-cracking rednecks instead of salty fisherman. Set in the fictional town of Perfection, Nevada, Tremors is a fun, energetic romp pitting a few scattered townspeople and a visiting geologist against a hungry subterranean threat. Starring Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Michael Gross, and (of all people) Reba McEntire, who all look like they’re having the absolute time of their lives, this movie is purest one of the purest examples of sheer popcorn entertainment you’re likely to find. Great practical effects, a smart, streamlined story, and some insanely quotable one-liners make Tremors an absolute classic in my eyes.
The master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, brings us this iconic tale of terror that dares to ask one very simple question: What if birds, but evil? Starring Tippi Hedren in her debut role, The Birds is perhaps the greatest demonstration of Hitchcock’s strengths as a director. After all, can you imagine how difficult it is to make birds scary? Birds?! And yet, somehow, he manages to make the feathered nuisances legitimately frightening, thanks largely in part to the believable, genuine fear that Hedren brings to her role. Unfortunately, the reason that fear is so realistic is because Hitchcock was actually making her life a living hell during the making of the film, casting a unfortunate light of abuse over the whole affair. But still, much like The Shining, the legacy of the film itself overshadows its troubled production, making it one of the most iconic films of the 20th century.
B-movies are absolutely swarming with monsters of all shapes and sizes. And yes, I do use “swarming” here deliberately. Them! is the first, and arguably best, of the “giant insect” subgenre of monster movies, riding high on the same wave of 50s-era sci-fi that gave us The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and pretty much Ed Wood’s entire career. Banking on the en-vogue clichés within the genre at the time, which pretty much boiled down to either “thing from space wants to kill us” or “nuclear radiation mutated a thing, which also wants to kill us,” Them! takes the latter approach by painting a fast, excellently-paced monster action narrative which pits the citizens of southwestern America against an expanding army of giant, irradiated ants. It’s frankly remarkable how competent of a thrill ride the film manages to be, having been released all the way back in 1954, and stands the test of time as one of the era’s most enduringly exciting and fantastical demonstrations of what can be achieved even with relatively primitive special effects.
For more of my favorite movie monsters, be sure to check out my posts on the classic Halloween revenge story Pumpkinhead, which has one of the greatest monster designs in movie history, as well as the bigfoot thriller Willow Creek, which will make you think twice about camping in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.
Shout out in the comments some of your own favorite creature-features!
And, as always, Happy Halloween!