Pop Culture

When monsters attack! Best cinema beasts

Something very big and very angry stalks the streets of New York City in “Cloverfield,” being released in theaters this week. The brainchild of producer J.J. Abrams (of the TV hit “Lost” and the upcoming “Star Trek” remake), “Cloverfield” aims to revitalize the giant-monster genre with a “Blair Witch Project” filming approach; the big beast’s victims film their flight from New York’s destruction with handheld video cameras.

But “Cloverfield,” of course, has some pretty big shoes to fill if it wants to be King of the Monsters: Giant monsters have been a cinema staple since at least 1925, when audiences thrilled to dinosaurs battling to the death in “The Lost World.”

If you want to get caught up on the genre, it’s not hard — 400-foot fire-breathing monsters leave a trail that’s easy to follow. Here’s a few of our favorites.

“King Kong” (1933)
For sheer spectacle, it’s still hard to beat this 74-year-old story of a giant gorilla fierce enough to be lord of his island jungle — where he wrangles with tyrannosaurs and pterodactyls — but is tragically unready for humans and their modern technology. They capture Kong and bring him to America in chains. Kong may not have been as big as some of the monsters that followed him, but he had more heart than most — and casts a long shadow over the entire genre.

“The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” (1953)
Director Eugène Lourié specialized in (or, less kindly, was typecast as) a creator of colossal-creature movies, with all four of his feature-length credits in the genre. But of those four, two are must-viewing for fans. Based on a Ray Bradbury story, “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” added a new element to the monster movie: Nuclear power run amok. The Beast, a slumbering dinosaur brought to life by an atomic blast in Antarctica, attacks New York thanks to the effects wizardry of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, in one of his first movies. The later “Gorgo” features not only spectacular scenes of famous London landmarks crushed under scaly claws, but a sneaking sympathy with the supposed villains: The 200-foot reptile marauding through London is really only rescuing her infant, which had been kidnapped and displayed as a tourist attraction (an element cheerfully ripped off from “Kong”).

“Godzilla” (1954)
In many ways the definitive giant monster, Godzilla has been smashing up Tokyo for more than 50 years, but only recently have American audiences been able to see his debut film as it should be seen — without the needless re-editing that toned down the Japanese version and without the subplot featuring Raymond Burr, which just slowed down the action. The recent 2006 DVD re-release fixes that. It’s hard to recommend a lot of the big guy’s later films, which are often silly, nonsensical excuses for two guys in rubber costumes to throw down on each other like pro wrestlers. But the series took on a darker, more interesting tone with “Godzilla 2000,” which reimagined Godzilla as something closer to his original marauding self. The best of the newer films is Shusuke Kaneko’s “Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack,” in which the lizard king is meaner than ever before, stomping on humans not because they’re in his way but because he actively hates them.

“Them!” (1954)
Japan’s giant-monster craze kicked into high gear at the same time as in the United States in the mid-1950s, in both cases inspired by fears of unchecked atomic energy and its terrible potential to create 9-foot mutant insects that eat people. Japan’s fascination with giant monsters — daikaiju — kept going long after American interest slowed, but the American crop produced plenty of fun movies, probably the best of which is “Them!,” in which overgrown ants arrive to knock humanity down a peg — and, no kidding, steal our sugar. It spawned a rash of big-insect imitators including “Tarantula,” “The Deadly Mantis” and “The Black Scorpion.”

“Q: The Winged Serpent” (1982)
Indie director Larry Cohen had a great run of cult-classic horror films in the 1970s and 1980s like “God Told Me To,” “The Stuff” and “It’s Alive,” full of cleverly done shocks and sly political and religious satire. With “Q,” he brought a monster to New York in the form of the ancient Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, as a modern-day cult resurrects the reptile/bird deity as a large winged dragon that builds a nest atop the Chrysler Building and swoops over the rooftops snatching people for his lunch.

“Ghostbusters” (1984)
Oh, sure, most of this classic Bill Murray/Dan Aykroyd comedy is about a crew of parapsychologists armed with proton cannons who fight supernatural infestations — they bust ghosts, in plainer language. But the climax of the movie involves one of the greatest monster-movie parodies ever made, as New York City is threatened by a humongous and extremely angry Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, a friendly corporate mascot imbued with demonic power and orders to smash the city. Luckily, the city knows who they’re gonna call.

“Tremors” (1990)
There’s no reason a giant monster has to attack a giant town, of course — isolated small towns make for suspenseful settings, a fact well known to the creators of the delightful horror-comedy “Tremors,” in which Kevin Bacon and the residents of the backwater burg of Perfection, Nevada, are threatened by a swarm of carnivorous, burrowing beasts.

“The Call Of Cthulhu” (2005)

The creators of “Cloverfield” were very careful to keep the plot of their movie — and the exact nature of their monster — under wraps, while fanning interest with various clues and fake blogs scattered around the Internet. Early on, fans guessed that “Cloverfield” might be an adaptation of the classic H.P. Lovecraft short story “The Call Of Cthulhu,” in which a tentacle-faced squid god rises from the ocean to reclaim the Earth. “Cloverfield” is not “Cthulhu,” but luckily there’s a decent, if extremely low-budget, adaptation already out there. Made by a group of amateur filmmakers calling themselves the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, “Call Of Cthulhu” is extremely faithful to the original story, and benefits greatly from the decision to make it a black-and-white silent film as might have been shot when Lovecraft wrote the original story in 1926. That’s not only good for creating the proper Lovecraftian atmosphere, but allows clever-but-cheap effects and set design that literally turn cardboard into ancient marble. Brilliant? No, but highly recommended for genre fans. The DVD can be found at the HPLHS Web site at cthulhulives.org.

“The Host” (2006)
The best big-monster movie of the last decade comes from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, with an assist from the special-effects wizards of Peter Jackson’s WETA shop. Thanks to some extremely realistic CGI design, the river-dwelling creature shows up surprisingly early in the movie — traditionally in this type of film, we don’t see the whole monster until the last few scenes — with a nail-biting surprise attack on a curious (and quickly terrified) crowd. “The Host” is a great example of the notion that effects are only part of what makes a great sci-fi film — without a thrilling and compelling story too, you’re sunk. Let’s hope the creators of “Cloverfield” understand this too.

Christopher Bahn is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

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