A Brief History
On March 2, 1933, the classic monster movie, King Kong, opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The big ape has starred in remakes of the movie and different adaptations of the idea of a giant gorilla, and the name, “King Kong,” has become a metaphor for a large, ferocious person, several people taking on the name of the great ape as their own nickname. King Kong started a genre of classic movie monsters that continues today, and we take this opportunity to offer our list of the 10 movie monsters we think are the greatest in the history of filmdom. Which movie monsters would you add to the list? (The order of the list does not indicate rankings.) Some Honorable Mentions include: Cenobites and Pinhead (Hellraiser), Graboids (sand worms from Tremors), giant ants (Them), The Thing, The Blob, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Medusa, the Hydra, Pennywise (from It), Martians (from War of the Worlds and others), T-Rex (from Jurassic Park) and Moby Dick. Generically speaking, vampires, werewolves and zombies are some of the top movie and television monsters, as are giants and dinosaurs/dragons. Folklore monsters such as ogres, trolls and gargoyles often appear on film, as do ghosts. Lately robots, aliens, clones and androids could be included, as well as any genetically modified or mutated people or animals (such as in Resident Evil).
Not all movie vampires are Dracula, but the idea here is a particular main character as a vampire. The Bram Stoker book, Dracula (1897), was not the first mention of vampires, but is the basis for most of what the vampire lore of movies and literature has evolved from. The first vampire movie was Vampire of the Coast (1909), and surprisingly a total of 22 silent films about vampires preceded the iconic Nosferatu of 1922. The Dracula character as we generally think of as played by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film, Dracula, was not even the first movie titled after the famous undead count, as Drakula premiered in 1921, as did Dracula’s Death (in Hungary), although a Russian version called Dracula may predate those 2 films (1920). Vampires in general and Dracula in particular are a bigtime favorite of movie makers and movie goers, as well as readers of millions of novels, comic books, and television watchers. So many movies, books, short stories, plays, television shows and other cultural references have been made to Dracula or vampires in general it is probably impossible to accurately count them all. Over 200 Dracula themed movies have been made, more than any other movie monster, giving old Drac a claim as the “Greatest Movie Monster.” Spoofs include Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) and Blacula (1972).
2. King Kong.
In the movie, Training Day, Denzel Washington’s character loudly proclaims that he is King Kong, meaning a scary, unstoppable force. (Many such cultural references have been made, sometimes with racist overtones.) Not only was the original movie a big hit, and a cult classic, the remakes were pretty good as well. Other big gorilla movies such as Mighty Joe Young (1949 and 1998) have thrilled audiences and in 2018 we eagerly await the release of Rampage, another giant gorilla movie about a genetic experiment gone wrong that produces an enormous gorilla. From the step-motion 3 foot tall gorilla puppet in the original King Kong, we have continuously made our giant apes more and more realistic to where you could just about believe they are real. Shout out to Gigantopithecus, the real life extinct ape of Asia that stood 10 feet tall and weighed 1300 pounds! (Died out 100,000 to 300,000 years ago.)
3. Frankenstein’s Monster.
Taken from the 1818 Mary Shelley novel, the iconic portrayal is the Boris Karloff movie from 1931, although an earlier version was made in 1910. Since then, numerous sequels, remakes and adaptations (over 60 movies) have been made, some in the comedy rather than horror genre. Robert DiNiro is the best “Frankenstein’s Monster” of all time in our estimation, from the 1994 version of the story (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Some adaptations have updated the story to a more modern setting, and the Fred Gwynn portrayal of Herman Munster on television is a parody of the monster. The name Frankenstein has come to mean a sort of Rube Goldberg concoction of various spare parts into an unlikely whole, applied to such diverse objects as a legislative bill to a building, machine, automobile, organization or whatever.
4. The Wolf Man.
Made famous by the 1941 film by the same name, the werewolf genre of “wolf man” movies is another of the extremely common and popular monster themes found in horror movies, often in conjunction with another sort of monster or monsters (such as series of Twilight and Underworld films, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, and the like). In fact, a serious take on the story came out in 1935, Werewolf of London, but was not the hit success the 1941 film was. Normally portrayed as a terrifying killer, as with some of the other iconic movie monsters the wolf man/werewolf monster is also often portrayed in a more comedic role, such as Teen Wolf or a semi-comedic portrayal such as An American Werewolf in London. Dozens of films, television shows, books, and cartoons have used this iconic movie monster taken from European folklore. Among the author’s favorite werewolf films are the Ginger Snaps (2000) films, and another favorite was Wolfen (1981). After World War II, the German terrorist resistance to Allied occupation was called “Operation Werewolf.” The Howling (1981) was such a success it spawned sequels, as have other movies in the genre.
5. The Mummy.
Played by Boris Karloff in the 1931 film, the character Imhotep is a mummified Egyptian brought back to life accidentally by the reading of a magic scroll. Looking for his lost love from millennia ago, Imhotep assumes the identity of a modern Egyptian and attempts to find the mummy of his lost love in order to resurrect her. He later believes she is reincarnated in the form of a modern girl that looks eerily like his old lover. Imhotep wants to kill and mummify this girl, then resurrect her as his lost love. Despite the well known practice of removing the innards of a person being mummified and placing the viscera in closed urns, in the story Imhotep was buried alive and intact as a punishment for trying to resurrect his dead girlfriend. The Goddess Isis in the form of a statue strikes down Imhotep with a beam of light that turns him to dust. Numerous other movies about resurrected mummies have been made since, some more or less a similar story and other going in completely different directions. Renditions of The Mummy are typical Halloween decorations and costumes today, as this movie monster has become another pervasive cultural influence. The film was inspired by the real life practice of embalming mummies by ancient Egyptians, especially with the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb and the fabulous riches within. Sequels, reboots, and comedic takes on the story have been made. A most hilarious technical error in the original trailer for the Tom Cruise version in 2017 makes for a real scream, but not of terror! The Mummy character also appears in numerous other films and stories, such as the Scorpion King series.
When the first Godzilla movie hit the theaters in 1954 as a fire spewing dinosaur looking giant spawn of nuclear testing, it was a sensation. By today’s standards, though, the special effects are laughable. A man in a monster suit walking around scale model buildings and cars is what passed for high tech in those days, but Japanese audiences loved the film and its anti-nuclear undertones. In 1956, the film made it to the United States in the heavily Americanized version Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and found another eager audience. Godzilla’s success resulted in a franchise surrounding the smelly monster with the hot bad breath, and he reappeared in numerous sequels to fight other monsters (including King Kong!) and the Japanese military over and over again. Re-makes of the movie were completed in 1998 and 2014. In conjunction with the 2014 film, the original 1954 version was released once again. The budget of the original 96-minute film was $900,000 with a box office take of $2,250,000. That profit is a pittance, however, compared to the residuals and merchandising income that made this movie a fantastic investment for the producers. As with any successful phenomenon, sequels, remakes, imitators and parodies were spawned. Many cheesy movie monsters owe their existence to the success of Godzilla, including Rodan, Mothra, MechaGodzilla, Megalon and King Ghidorah. Blue Oyster Cult even sang a song titled “Godzilla” in 1977. And that was not the only song about Godzilla! Even Godzilla costumes are popular, with people dressing up their dogs and little horses as the “Destroyer of Tokyo.” Oddly enough, considering all the sequels and ongoing franchise, the original movie featured Godzilla dying in Tokyo Bay when he was subjected to a secret weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer which caused the great monster to disintegrate to a skeleton.
Before the 1975 blockbuster film, Jaws, sharks had been the villain in numerous other movies but not with such a major starring role or social impact. People really did ask, “Is it safe to go back in the water?” Millions of sharks were killed, and shark fishing became a fad. Along with the 3 sequels, numerous other movies with a large, hungry shark or sharks became commonplace, including Deep Blue Sea, Dark Tide, The Shallows, Bait, Open Water and especially those campy horror spoofs you find on the SyFy channel (2- Headed Shark Attack, Mechashark, Megalodon, Sharknado and all its sequels, Dinoshark, Sharktopus, Hammerhead/Sharkman, Super Shark, Ghost Shark, Shark Swarm, Swamp Shark, Sand Sharks… you get the idea). The increase in real life shark attacks in recent years, including some attacks chillingly caught on video, predispose the public to be terrified by sharks, and the shark as a monster movie is big business.
8. Xenomorph (Alien).
The 1979 movie, Alien, has become one of the most iconic horror movies of all time, and has spawned 3 sequels, 2 prequels, and 2 Alien vs. Predator movies. The scene in which the Xenomorph burst out of the chest of the hapless John Hurt as the character Kane is one of the most memorable movie scenes of any genre. Dripping acidic blood, the Alien creature is so formidable and terrifying it is truly the stuff of nightmares, and the movies have further given rise to numerous other cultural references, including video games, books, toys, comic books and imitators. The Xenomorph has become the yardstick by which all movie aliens are compared. And it has a cool name, not something to sneeze at… The film won the 1979 Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Visual Effects. Other films have copied aspects of the film, Alien, or its titular monster.
9. The Kraken.
Nominally a sea monster of Norse legend, it is believed the giant squid provided the basis for the legend. Many movies have portrayed giant squids and giant octopuses (the plural of octopus is NOT “octopi” despite popular belief, although you can alternatively choose to say “octopodes”) dragging ships or sailors to their watery graves. Made a household term by the 1981 film, Clash of the Titans (remade in 2010) when “Release the Kraken!” became a cry to rival “Remember the Alamo!” or any other familiar American phrase. In 1830 none other than Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote a poem about the Kraken, an irregular sonnet titled, “The Kraken” (as seen below).
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
Stories such as Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea feature the mighty Kraken.
10. The Mother in Law.
How many films have portrayed a character’s mother in law as a demon straight from hell? Even the movie, Monster-in-Law (2005), makes the title official! Played by Jane Fonda vis a vis daughter-in-law Jennifer Lopez, the Fonda character does everything she can to drive away her prospective daughter-in-law. The mother-in-law as a “monster” is a common theme in books, movies, and even songs such as “Mother in Law” by Ernie K-Doe, which hit #1 in 1961 lend credibility to this meme. Other films with a deadly mom-in-law include Hush (1998), Mother Knows Best (1997), Too Close to Home (1997), and The Governor’s Wife (2008). Oddly enough, my real life mother-in-law was as nice to me as she could be, a really lucky thing in my life.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who or what is your favorite movie monster? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Landis, John. Monsters in the Movies. DK, 2016.