It’s a tale as old as the movies itself. Man does something stupid, or brilliant, or brilliantly stupid, and finds/discovers/invents/stumbles across a monster, and then spends the rest of the movie trying not to get eaten. I’m not talking about Japanese Kaiju movies, although they are certainly a part of the larger discussion. I’m referring to the things that are larger than humans, but smaller than Godzilla. Or, optionally, man-sized, but far from man-like. The monster in question isn’t a giant animal, either; indeed, the best of this type of movie are monsters that never were, or thought to have been myths, or just plain aliens.
There’s also a “hunter versus hunted” component to this kind of movie. Whatever is chasing us for food triggers these primal fears within us that we typically suppress. As a country that is mythically saturated by a fear of the unknown, the Other, the Outer Darkness, these movies are at their biggest and best when they fall within the realm of the everything our ancestors feared when they huddled in their cabins for warmth. Our cabins are way better now, with wi-fi and air conditioning, but the fear never really goes away.
Those of you over the age of 40 will doubtless notice a lack of movies over 40 years old. Here’s why: as cool, as classic, as interesting, and as cinematically important as those movies are to the development of horror as a viable genre, in this day and age, they just aren’t very scary. And most of them, in fact, kinda suck. That we enjoy them anyway is beside the point; my love for the movie Robot Monster is well documented, but I don’t even pretend for a nanosecond that it’s very good, or has merit, or is something that other taxpaying citizens should watch. It’s like being a Mr. Pibb fan. Enjoy it all you want, but don’t try to convince the rest of us that it’s not low-grade Dr. Pepper, all right?
5. Q (1982)
The New York City police are baffled by a series of rooftop murders involving grisly decapitations. There’s no connection between the victims and the city is in a panic. One guy, a failed jazz pianist that turns to crime, actually knows what’s going on and spends a good portion of the movie trying to make it work to his advantage. Detectives Richard Rountree and David Carradine are chasing their tails and trying to catch up with the killer even as the bodies continue to pile up.
What starts out as a bunch of low-lifes in a low-stakes crime story turns into a bizarre and wholly original monster movie that succeeds, in a lo-fi kind of way, where other large-scale monster-loose-in-New York City movies fail (I’m looking right at you, Roland Emmerich’s terrible Godzilla (1998) movie). I know, getting to the monster by way of a crime story is not the usual starting point, but that’s really what I like about it. Coming in at a real close second is the unique creature design, which is stop-motion animated by Dave Allen. The few scenes featuring the full monster are well-done (well, as well-done as you can get in 1982 without using Ray Harryhausen, and I really do mean that in the nicest possible way). The movie was made for just over a million dollars, but it doesn’t look it.
Writer and director Larry Cohen had a reputation for doing quirky, left-of-center character-driven movies. Q, or the Winged Serpent, is one of those movies, and while you can argue it’s also one of those movies that you either love or hate, I think it’s worth including precisely because of how different it is. I love it, but then again, I’m a nut for this kind of movie.
4. Tremors (1990)
In a former mining town in Nevada, Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward stumble across a dead body on top of an electrical tower and afterwards, they find an old sheep farmer’s head and conclude there’s a killer on the loose. The town is, of course, overrun and soon a small band of intrepid survivors have to stay alive and get out of town and then when those options dry up, kill the monsters. The usual rate of attrition applies, here, as people do stupid or daring or brave things and get eaten.
If Kevin Bacon was only famous for being in Tremors, it would still be enough. Everyone likes Tremors. Everyone. Whether you think it’s a better-than-average B-movie, or you think it’s a brilliant political commentary-slash-allegory for our environmental policies literally collapsing beneath our feet, or maybe you just like the Sand Worms in Dune and think they didn’t get enough screen time, Tremors is kind of like the everyman of Post-Modern B-Movie Monster/Political Allegory films.
The script is very much a Paint-By-Numbers endeavor, but the cast and crew take it seriously, and so do you, as a result. That’s not to say that Bacon and Ward aren’t having a grand time acting more broadly than their careers would have allowed in 1990. The movie is very quotable, too. You can, and probably should, avoid all of the direct-to-video sequels. Tremors became a franchise, with each successive release pulling the first movie down just a little bit, as most horror sequels do. Oh, who am I kidding; I’m sure the whole “saga” would make an excellent afternoon binge-fest, provided there was enough beer and chicken wings.
3. Attack the Block (2011)
What happens during an alien invasion when the creatures touch ground in the bad part of town? Good question. In Attack the Block, a routine mugging by a bunch of penny-ante teenage gangsters is interrupted by glowing meteors falling out of the sky. The kids come across some creepy extraterrestrial life forms, and so, of course, they kill it, thinking it’ll be something they can sell later on. But when more monsters, bigger monsters, start falling out of the sky, the pack of juvenile delinquents have to navigate between the real, actual, gun-toting gangsters on their low-income housing block, and these terrifying alien beasts who relentlessly chase the kids all over the place.
You’ve probably heard of this modern cult-classic, which was a darling on the genre festival circuit a few years ago. When the lead thug, played by John Boyega, was trucked out on the Internet as one of the new faces of Star Wars for Episode 7: The Force Awakens, the movie got a shot in the arm as Cine-Hipsters scrambled to see it so they could drop it casually into Star Wars conversations.
There are some things about Attack the Block that will leave you conflicted. It’s full of anti-heroes, penny-ante criminals with delusions of grandeur, and a streetwise sensibility made all the more strange by the British cockney slang and South London setting. Attack the Block is like The Warriors Meets Aliens. The least-unlikeable person in the movie is the hero, and you won’t like Moses for most, if not all, of the film. The chuckleheads he surrounds himself with are no better. And only his mugging victim at the beginning of the film engenders any real sympathy. All the same, as bad as the little hoodlums are, the monsters are far worse. Speaking of monsters…wow. The alien creatures in Attack the Block are some of the most visually impressive monsters I’ve ever seen. You’ll dig them, guaranteed. They are truly alien, and truly terrifying.
2. The Host (2006)
Some kids spot the monster hanging out under a bridge spanning the Han River. It falls off, swims ashore, and starts eating people and stepping on them and chasing them hither and yon. A panicked family has to figure out how to survive the monster’s attack. Simple, elegant, and leaving plenty of room for the standard “we’re killing the planet” message to go with it.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all from Asian horror cinema, there comes this incredibly cool monster movie from South Korea, written and directed by Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Okja, and Parasite), proving that your irradiated and mutated marine life need not be 300 feet tall to be scary and destructive. The creature is fully CGI, and integrated into most of the shots with great care, so you really get a sense of this thing running amok, chasing humans the way a cocker spaniel chases squirrels in the park, with much the same results. Gruesome! There’s a lot of good moments of extreme tension and even a few jump scares to go with the edge-of-your-seat chase sequences. Bong Joon-ho based the story on real news events (dumping formaldehyde in the river, and pulling mutated fish out of the water), tweaking a few things to make the script scary. There is a lot to like about this movie as a refreshing change of pace from the same old, same old.
1. The Relic (1997)
A bunch of biological specimens from South America arrive in the Chicago harbor, destined for the museum, with one little hitch—the entire crew of the boat is dead. Missing their heads kind of dead. When the specimens arrive at the Field Museum, an evolutionary biologist is baffled by a crate full of leaves with fungus on them. Meanwhile, the police detective is trying to track down whoever is beheading folks in a gruesome fashion. These two people collide when the big gala at the Field Museum is interrupted by a bloody head falling into the suit-and-tie crowd, and everyone realizes they are chasing a what instead of a who…
Based on the book by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, this movie of the same name does an admirable job of embracing the subject matter and splitting the difference between a police procedural and a monster rampage. Tom Sizemore plays the part of what would have been the first Agent Pendergast appearance on film, had they cleaved more closely to the book, and Penelope Ann Miller plays the plucky scientist who knows all about the tribal boogum that’s cutting people up in the museum. Despite Sizemore and Miller doing a bang-up job selling the story and getting their jump-scare on, the star of the show is the creature itself, an amazing blend of practical effects and CGI that is perfectly balanced to be fast, large, and terrifying. For that we have the late, great Stan Winston to thank. This is an exemplary version of the monster-rampage plot, with just enough “keep it in the shadows” and jump scares that are not diminished when you finally get a good look at the thing. Plot-wise, it breaks very little new ground, but technically, The Relic is a textbook on how to deliver a good, old-fashioned, by the numbers “creature on the loose movie.”