With the success of ‘Godzilla, King of Monsters’ and rumours of sequels featuring more giant creatures than you can shake a rubber suit at, it seems an appropriate time to take a closer look at this sub genre of horror and, fishing wearily through the masses of plasticine and latex, search out those efforts within this group that are worth a second glance.
To some, the idea that the ‘feature length live action cartoons’ produced by Toho studios could be considered ‘horror’ is laughable and indeed watching Godzilla do happy skips or fight a mechanical version of himself in Mecha Godzilla, seemingly has more that will appeal to a prepubescent boy than a fan of Rosemary’s baby.
However, to simply lump all of these giant monster ‘creature features’ together and dismiss them. is to overlook some true classics and fail to acknowledge that although they may have descended into Saturday morning fodder now, the roots of this genre are firmly planted in horror.
Though it pains the seven year old boy inside me to admit it, most giant monster movies aren’t very good. They’re formulaic, badly plotted, poorly acted showpieces for what is often a laughably animated or clumsily portrayed ‘monster’ that bears more resemblance to a child’s action figure than anything serious.
Even in this list of films worth watching, some of those elements remain. What distinguishes these gems from the glut of imitators however, is precisely the fact that they are not the imitators, they are, in most cases the innovators, creating the tropes that we nowadays find so familiar. Few are likely to give anyone a genuine scare nowadays, but for sheer popcorn, escapist entertainment they definitely deserve a place in any horror fan’s collection. So, let’s dive in and smash some buildings!
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Though undoubtedly it was a hairy ape from Skull Island that really started the ball rolling when it comes to the massive monster sub-genre (don’t worry, we’ll get to the monkey monarch later) when it comes to really cementing the on the screen language of the giant monster movie, the blueprint was really drawn up by this film and particularly special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen.
It’s all there- the oversized creature tearing through the city, the wide shots of crowds running panicked through the streets, the pseudo scientific explanation of the creature’s origins and the obligatory shots of civilians being crushed or consumed.
What sets this movie apart however, is not just the fact that it is one of the earliest (it predates the original Godzilla by a year) but the effects that Harryhausen produces.
The Rhedasurus (as it is known) in this film, has the appearance of a large, mutated reptile, something akin to an overgrown and deeply agitated iguana.
Unlike the Godzilla movie that would arrive the following year however, this movie did not rely upon men in suits, but instead brought its creature to life through good old stop motion. If the mere mention of those two words makes you think of something from Wallace and Gromit and instantly impels you to switch off, I assure you, this is not the time.
Harryhausen was, to put it bluntly, a genius when it came to animation. Taking on sole responsibility for the animation in this film, he painstakingly brought the creature to life, through infinitesimally small incremental movements, frame by laborious frame.
What is particularly striking about the result is not only Harryhausen’s ability to create fluid, lifelike movements but his attention to texture and particularly shadow. Watch the scenes of the creature wandering through the city and you’ll see a masterclass in using light and shade to create solidity in the effects. Each arching shadow giving the creature a depth and roundness of form that for the time was simply stunning.
Godzilla /Gojira (1954)
Well I had to didn’t I? One look at the facial features on this version of the latex lizard tells you that there’s something different about him in comparison the star of the other Godzilla films you may have seen.
Eschewing the increasingly Disney-fied eye shape and less predatory looking mouth of the later films and displaying all the cuddly credentials of sea urchin made of nails, the original ‘Gojira’ movie has Godzilla’s gob stuffed with wicked looking fangs, with a pissed off facial expression contorted to a level appropriate for someone who has just been awakened by a nuclear explosion.
What is obvious from the get go, is that in this version, Godzilla is the bad guy. The use of black and white masks a multitude of visual sins and gives the movie a stark desolation appropriate for a film that is essentially an on screen metaphor for a country still coming to terms with the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Interestingly, this movie was actually known as ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’, the same title as the just released movie, when it was first shown in the U.S. which is of course massively confusing. Though as any Godzilla fan will tell you, trying to keep up with the various versions, timelines and incarnation of the big lizard is a thankless task in and of itself. The original and best Godzilla movie ever made.
Speaking of countries processing national tragedies on screen, there is an avalanche of movie criticism written about the audience appetite for disaster movies and destroyed cities in the wake of 9/11 (it isn’t just the Japanese that process things through their art).
One of the most successful films when it comes to capturing the horror and confusion of such events in an on screen narrative, (almost disturbingly so), is this modern take on the giant monster movie in which the directors cleverly switch the focus to be on the human characters caught in the creature’s wake, rather than the monolithic monster itself.
One of the more successful examples from the glut of handheld horror movies that saturated the genre in the wakes of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, the shaky visuals, audible panic from the relatively unknown actors and the juxtaposition of this intimate small scale filming medium against the city stomping creature, really work here. The film’s switch in focus creating an interesting examination of microcosmic dramas that always exist in the midst of such huge major events.
20 Million Miles To Earth (1957)
Another example of the use of stop motion creature creation, this vehicle for effects wizard Ray Harryhausen owes a lot to the original King Kong.
Essentially a collection a set piece scenes strung together by a plot about things being brought back from Venus, this movie is only a ‘giant’ monster movie for a small portion, much of the plot being built around the idea that the creature doubles in size every night.
The way that this changing sense of scale is dealt with by Harryhausen is a work of art in itself as the beautifully animated creature first shown as miniscule, increases in size gradually over the course of the film.
Whilst it’s no Pulp Fiction or Citizen Kane in terms of the complexity of its scripting (if you’re seriously looking for that in a giant monster movie you might be somewhat deluded) for fans of good old fashioned creature features this ticks all the right boxes, scenes of the monster fighting an elephant and running amok in Rome being worth the price of admission on their own.
Much like in the original Godzilla, black and white masks a slew of imperfections so I’d recommend seeing the monochrome 1957 version as opposed to the touched up colourised version of later years.
King Kong (1933)
No list like this would be complete without the king. Whilst the new Godzilla movie might be subtitled ‘King of Monsters’, in my opinion this is a disputed crown.
The original and arguably best giant monster movie, King Kong set the bar for what could be done on screen. It must be remembered that although it seems tame by today’s standards in the early days of cinema, the ‘giant monster’ was a new and genuinely frightening prospect. In many ways it makes sense, if you have a huge screen to project on to, why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of that to project a massive creature onto it and scare audiences silly?
Initially the director of Kong was not planning to use stop motion and rather, inspired by tales of the real life Komodo dragons, planned to capture one of these huge reptiles and have it fight a gorilla. For real. It’s odd to think that one of the milestones of early cinema could have been relegated to an outdated exercise in animal cruelty, but there you have it.
The original King Kong is also responsible for one of cinema’s great ‘lost scenes’. In the first versions of the film, at the point at which Kong rolls the sailors from a log into a small ravine, there was a scene in which Skull Island’s resident creepy crawlies came out to play.
Known as the ‘Lost Spider Pit Scene’ this section was considered so terrifying to audiences that it was removed from the film’s actual release and was subsequently lost. Now that’s horror.Old school horror, but horror none the less. In 2005 Peter Jackson did a commendable job in attempting to remake this scene using the original techniques (this version is available on Youtube).
Be it stop motion or men in suits there is something fascinating about these films. Hopefully this list will give you some choice cuts to consider.