Halloween Horror Primers: Giant Monsters!

Sean Smithson, Contributor
Sometimes bigger IS better. One of my favorite fantastic flick sub-genres is that of the "ginormous monster." 

I don't know a single kid who hasn't gone through some kind of dinosaur phase in school. Coupled with growing up on the local TV affiliate's Saturday matinee (RIP, cable killed that dead), which is where they'd show more age-appropriate fare, we got a lot of old Toho Godzilla flicks and the old 50s atomic horror stuff. This, of course, meant huge lumbering creatures, which evoked terrors far more general than the immediate threat of vampire attack, or strangulation by mummy hands. Strange, now that I think of it, that imagining your town crushed under-foot of giant monster attack was somehow less threatening than being mauled by a much smaller threat. 

Anyhoo ... here is a quick primer for the larger clan in the "realm of scary movies" and again, is ironically more forgiving for younger viewers. Some of these films were a wee bit difficult to encapsulate as well, so please note that trailers are linked in the titles!

GODZILLA -
Now I am choosing to put up the American version for potential viewing this Halloween season. Why? Well, because I'm hoping for one that gets to kids, not just us old fogeys already converted to the cause. In this version, a news reporter is caught up in the craze of a dinosaur-like creature that has risen out of the depths of Tokyo bay, to stomp across pagodas and noodle shops and bring the problem of property damage to all new heights. It's a far more quaint film than the original Japanese version, Gojira, which was indeed a very clear metaphor for the atomic bomb and the tragedy it left in its wake for the people of Japan. Gojira, yes, is incredibly important in a cultural sense, but if you're out to munch popcorn and have fun with the wee tykes by your side, go with this version.
 
As a side note, creature king Ray Harryhausen hated this film. He always felt it was a lift from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. And before any Harryhausen fanatics (of which I am one, and lifelong at that) get up in tiny T-rex arms about no inclusion of Ray's work in this list ... patience. The man warrants his own primer entirely.  

Recommended for ages 10 and up

KING KONG '76 -
Where is the Willis O'Brien version? Right next to this one on the DVD shelf, folks. That said, in my heart of hearts I have to be honest. This Dino De Laurentis produced spectacle is my favorite take on the ape that started it all. In the update, a hippy-ish eco guy stows away on a ship headed to a mysterious island on an oil finding expedition. The element of big industry was very current (and still is) when this version was made, and adds an element of realism. Now, when the ship and its crew find a beautiful blond floating in the middle of the ocean on a life raft, we have our beauty. When they get to the fog enshrouded island, which turns out to be home for an unknown native tribe that worships their neighbor, a giant ape, we have our beast. Switching out the Empire State building for the Twin Towers, we have an ending that becomes poignant for more than one reason nowadays.
 
The movie itself is as big and lumbering as the beast it is about, but holy moley what a lot of fun. Choose this over the bloated Peter Jackson debacle and be the better for it. Also, the soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith may be my single most favorite OST of all time.

Recommended for ages 10 and up

TARANTULA -
Goofy 1950's fare, with a scientist trying to create giant food to help feed the hungry poor of the world. But oopsy doodle, a tarantula has gotten into the hormones, and now the scientist, the pretty assistant, and the small desert town their lab is in all face danger from ... Tarantula! There isn't a lot to say about this old black and white film other than make a giant bowl of popcorn to go along with it. And whoa ... is that Clint Eastwood as a jet fighter pilot?

Recommended for ages 8 and up

THEM! -
And now some not so goofy 1950s fare that starts off in a pretty horrifying way, as two cops find a little girl in an almost catatonic state, wandering the desert, and all she can say (or scream rather) is "Them!" They soon discover the girl's parents were killed by giant ants caused by atomic testing in the desert, and that the colony of insects is indeed growing. Probably the single greatest film of the Atomic Terror sub-genre of the 50s when Los Alamos was rockin' and the Cold War was still swingin' hard. It's scarier than the rest of its brethren, with only the mighty parable of Gojira to challenge it for the crown as far as subtext goes. Them! is quaint by today's standards, sure, but still packs a wallop. Children are endangered in  this film, which makes it a little extra terrifying for the tykes who may be viewing.

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

CLOVERFIELD -
I'm still convinced this idea was lifted a bit from an old M. Night concept I read about (and nobody seems to remember) where a town dealt with the fact that every few years, a giant monster traipsed through destroying everything.

Anyway, yeah, this found footage type flick didn't resonate with me on first viewing, but after catching it a couple more times it's really grown on me. NYC is suddenly set upon by a giant creature who has emerged out of the water, destroying the Statue of Liberty and heading straight for Manhattan. Things get scary when we discover there are insect-like parasites living on the creature that drop off and scurry after the fleeing population. Factor in a bit of a love story, which gives Cloverfield's characters a quest to fulfill, and a nihilistic bent towards the end, and yeah ... you can call me a fan. 

Recommended for ages 13 and up

THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS -
Boy oh boy, how to describe this weird-out of a kaiju flick? Springing from the cells of a giant Frankenstein (from the just as weird Frankenstein Vs. Barugon aka Frankenstein Conquered The World), two giant hairy beasts, the titular Gargantuas wreak havoc across the countryside. One evil, one good, these two sizable siblings create seismic mayhem as they battle it out. Confusing, difficult to synopsize, but crazy as all get out, see this one if only because it is so trippy. Good brother/bad brother magnified to absurd levels, The War Of The Gargantuas may be the single strangest kaiju film of all time.

Recommended for ages 8 and up
 

Q THE WINGED SERPENT -
Part gritty NYC crime flick, part cheesy giant monster flick, Q The Winged Serpent is 100% essential giant monster viewing. A threadbare detective chases after answers for unsolved murders around the city. A thief after a heist is holed up atop a skyscraper in an area undergoing construction. And a creature from Aztec legend brings them all together. Silly, gory, a little convoluted, and way better than it should be, Q The WInged Serpent is a great example of genre mash-ups that are far more common in Asian films these days than US product. Made by exploitation auteur Larry Cohen, this film not only rocks, it squawks!

Recommended for ages 12 and up

MOTHRA -
Probably the most well known kaiju after the big G, the original installment of Mothra is incredibly vibrant and colorful, and mashes genres incredibly smoothly, mixing atomic science sci-fi, the crime/noir genre, and even the musical! Survivors of a shipwreck find natives worshiping a giant moth, and beautiful twins the size of your finger that sing to the mysterious creature who looks over their idyllic island paradise. In a nod to King Kong, a shady businessman abducts the twins (called The Peanut Twins among many US based kaiju fans) and carts them off to the mainland to exploit them as freaks of nature. Mothra sets off to make things right, wreaking destruction and havoc along the way with its power to emit a laser like zap! and shed scales that poison her enemies. Again, above all else this film is just a pleasure to look at, with amazing jungle sets and colors galore. This is also probably the single most age appropriate film of all the primers, and okay for tiny kids and big kids (like us!) alike.

Recommended for ages 6 and up
 

TREMORS -
Japan has kaiju, but boy if you want to find massive and menacing monsters here in the USA? I think the pattern set up in this primer is clear ... the desert wins out. In Tremors, a group of very different people, consisting of a couple of handymen, a survivalist couple, a science student, and a couple of random townsfolk, end up banding together to fight off creatures called Graboids. These are giant subterranean worms with teeth and the appetite to put them to damned good use. Another genre masher, Tremors mixes survival horror, comedy, action, and an almost Western-vibe to great effect. Tremors has slowly but surely become a strong cult staple in the giant monster sub-genre, and spawned a number of sequels, none of which completely managed to match the charm of this grab-bag original. Super fun stuff!

Recommended for ages 12 and up

JURASSIC PARK -
This is another one we have probably all seen already, but it's easy to forget about this blockbuster simply because it was so incredibly, well, huge! But if you haven't revisited this first installment, based on the Crichton novel, you should. The billionaire philanthropist who builds an island retreat and hires the world's greatest genetic scientists to bring back dinosaurs through the miracle of splicing and dicing genes. The reclusive and curmudgeonly paleontologist who would rather be on a dig than placating the whims of said billionaire and his grand-kids. The industrial espionage. And the dinosaurs, of the glorious dinosaurs, courtesy of the late great Stan Winston. With nods to King Kong as well as stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen, Jurassic Park is still completely magical to watch, and even close to 20 years later, it's ground-breaking CGI fx hold up against almost anything Hollywood has thrown up on the wall since. High adventure and nail biting terror, this is a modern mega-classic.

Recommended for ages 10 and up
Around the Internet:
  • Niels Matthijs

    Mothra has the advantage of being a Gojira-incorporated monster, but I think Gamera is actually a bigger name in the genre, no?

  • In my particular world, I'd say so, yes. Hard to say conclusively, though. Mothra probably has more name recognition amongst casual fans. Gamera is better.

  • mightyjoeyoung

    "And before any Harryhausen fanatics (of which I am one, and lifelong at that) get up in tiny T-rex arms about no inclusion of Ray's work in this list ... patience. The man warrants his own primer entirely."

    I will be looking forward to that.

    "Silly, gory, a little convoluted, and way better than it should be, Q The WInged Serpent is a great example of genre mash-ups that are far more common in Asian films these days than US product. Made by exploitation auteur Larry Cohen, this film not only rocks, it squawks!"

    Great choice, Mr Smithson, this is a fun flick.

    Thanks for the list, Gwoemul (2006) is going to end up another list?

  • Ard Vijn

    Gwoemul may not be big enough, even its director keeps calling the monster "little".

  • mightyjoeyoung

    Well....I thought it was about the same size as Quetzalcoatl in Q (1982) or the ants in Them! (1954)......I would have loved seeing it on the list....but Mr Smithson made his choices and some great ones too.

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