Giant monsters have been around long before movies. The Book of Job has an extensive discussion of the Leviathan; the Greeks told stories of the terrible Typhon, whose hundred serpentine heads scraped the stars; and dragons were a part of many culture’s mythologies long before the first Tyrannosaurus skeleton was discovered and confirmed that yes, dragons did once more or less exist.
But the growth of public interest in dinosaurs happened to coincide with the rise of cinema (particularly the discovery of T. rex, around 1900), and as a result, there was a stampede of dinosaurs throughout the first few decades of film history. Many of these beasts began to increase in size, as well as increase in their distaste for humans and their major metropolitan centers.
There have been several lists here at Topless Robot that have covered the topic of giant movie monsters, but never one that tried to pick out the ones that have made the biggest impact on nerd-dom. Well, TR is nothing if not prone to hyperbole, so it’s we feel comfortable saying the following list is unquestionably the definitive lineup of the ten most memorable giant movie monsters ever created.
[Note – for the purposes of this list, a “giant” monster has to be at least fifty feet tall. So while the monster from The Host is cool, it’s barely bigger than an elephant.]
10) Unknown Creature from Cloverfield
Some love him. Some hate him. But there’s no question that “Clover,” the nickname of the beast from the J.J. Abrams film Cloverfield, is one of the most notable giant monsters of nerd-dom. Through sheer notoriety and wretched competition (including the likes of Reptilicus and the bizarre Kim Jong-il vanity flick monster Pulgasari), Clover just barely makes the list.
A cult classic among motion-sickness enthusiasts, Cloverfield did offer a fairly realistic take on what would happen if New York City were attacked by a giant monster – namely, hipster douchebags would run around filming everything until they got themselves killed.
The creature itself was a mess of gangly, multi-jointed legs, claws, teeth and inflating bladders. Abrams apparently liked this design so much he used it again for the alien in Super 8.
Still, it’s cooler than Pulgasari.
Daimajin is the central monster of a trilogy of Japanese movies, all of which were released in 1966 by Daiei, the same company that produced the Gamera films.
Daimaijin is an angry spirit who inhabits a gigantic stone idol sculpted like a samurai. When alive, his mask vanishes to reveal a grotesque, monstrous face beneath. The circumstances of Daimajin coming to life differ a bit in each film, though it usually involves someone pleading for help. While he lashes out at pretty much everyone and everything in the first movie, by the third he’s become something of a heroic figure battling corrupt rulers.
Daimajin had a brief movie career, but has enjoyed a larger cult reputation among fans of the genre. He even fought Godzilla once – sort of. Dark Horse’s “Godzilla Color Special,” considered by many to be one of the best Western Godzilla comics ever made, featured Godzilla taking on a very Daimajin-like character named Gekido-Jin.
8) The Sandworms from Dune
“Gods! What a monster!”
That’s what a young(ish) Patrick Stewart exclaims after watching a sandworm swallow a giant spice harvester in David Lynch’s Dune. It’s definitely one of those love-it-or-hate-it films (though how can you hate any movie that dares to give us Sting in silver underwear? …wait, don’t answer that). But one thing most geeks can agree on is that the sandworms were awesome.
Adapted from Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, the story of Dune takes place on the desert planet Arrakis. The colossal sandworms that bore through its sands have mouths rimmed with thousands of teeth (like the Sarlacc before the special edition gave it a beak). Estimates of their size vary, but it’s not unusual for them to reach lengths of 300-400 meters – much, much larger than any of the other monsters on this list. (And far larger than their Tremors counterparts, the Graboids.)
The fact is, most of the monsters on this list would be hard-pressed to win a fight with these gigantic, nearly indestructible creatures.
7) The Kraken
No, not the one from the remake of Clash of the Titans – that sucked. No, not the one from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men’s Chest – that sucked. No, not the sonnet by Alfred Tennyson – that wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t a movie monster either.
No, we’re talking about the real Kraken, the one animated by Nerd God Pantheon member Ray Harryhausen in the 1980 Clash of the Titans featuring the handsomely hammy Harry Hamlin as Perseus, an awesome clockwork owl, and Laurence fucking Olivier. (And a totally creepy Medusa, too.)
In designing the Kraken, Harryhausen borrows heavily from Ymir, the monster from his earlier film 20 Million Miles to Earth. But the Kraken has been better remembered in pop culture for its multi-armed design and its role in the film, threatening to kill the beautiful Andromeda and ultimately being destroyed by the gaze of the decapitated Medusa. The sequence of the Kraken crumbling into dust is one of the most memorable of Harryhausen’s career.
6) The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man
The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is easily one of the most beloved giant monsters in all of Nerd-dom. Now that he’s been enshrined in pop culture through cartoons, toys, and other various merchandise, it’s easy to forget how much of an amazing, hilarious payoff his appearance was in Ghostbusters. He’s at once ridiculous and terrifying. His later disintegration as the Ghostbusters destroy Gozer is just as creepy, his face vanishing in apocalyptic flames as his doughy flesh turns to goo – goo that falls onto Walter “Dickless” Peck.
5) The Rhedosaurus
A reptilian prehistoric monster is awakened by atomic bomb testing and wreaks havoc on a famous city. Sound familiar?
The city is New York, and the monster is the Rhedosaurus.
Also created by the aforementioned Ray Harryhausen, the Rhedosaurus is the star of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), one of the earliest examples of the “monster-on-the-loose” films that ran rampant through the 1950s. It was at least partly inspired by the 1952 re-release of King Kong (which was so successful Time named it the movie of the year). It was also a direct inspiration, along with King Kong, for 1954’s Gojira.
One well-known bit of nerd trivia is that The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms took its title from a story by the late Ray Bradbury. In the story, a lonely sea monster – perhaps the last of its species to survive to current times – humps destroys a lighthouse after mistaking its call for another of its species. The producers bought the rights to the story (though their film was already in production) and used the title, while Bradbury changed the story’s title to “The Fog Horn.” The film added the story’s scene where the monster destroys a lighthouse.
One of the most insidious things about the creature was that it bled virulent prehistoric germs, forcing the military to come up with a plan to kill it that doesn’t involve making it explode – not something B-movie military forces are very good at.
While many Western fans think of Mothra as just another monster in the Godzilla stable, Mothra started out with her own film in 1961, which is still fondly remembered as a high point in the “kaiju eiga” (monster movie) genre in Japan. (The film was based on a novel titled The Luminous Fairies and Mothra.) So popular was the first film that when she got top billing in Mothra vs. Godzilla three years later. Mothra made appearances in three more films during the “Showa” era of Godzilla movies (1954-1975) and also appeared in Godzilla vs. Mothra in 1992, as well as her own trilogy in the late 1990s.
Mothra is significant among giant monsters because she is lacks many of the typical characteristics of the genre – she has no claws or breath weapons, she tends to behave herself around humans (destroying only when provoked, or trying to protect her young), and often perceived as being a protector and, at times, a god.
Though often a target of fun among fans (“it’s just a giant moth!”), Mothra is a much more uniquely Japanese creation than Godzilla or Gamera, and is the most popular kaiju among women in Japan.
Every so often, a gifted artist takes a crappy existing concept and makes it amazing.
Gamera was initially created by the Japanese film company Daie as an obvious rip-off of Toho’s then-successful Godzilla series. Godzilla was a giant, prehistoric dinosaur who could spout atomic rays; Gamera was a giant, prehistoric turtle who could spout flame. After his first film, however, Gamera quickly became a good guy and a “friend to children,” prefiguring Godzilla’s own eventual face turn in the 1970s.
The 1960s Gamera films are memorable for their insipid pandering to children, their terrible production values, and their bizarre emphasis on gore – Gamera is wounded and bleeds constantly in these movies, while Gamera vs. Guiron features a knife-headed monster completely dismembering another beast, up to and including decapitation.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 famously set a torch to the Gamera films in the early ’90s. With his reputation in tatters and absolutely nothing to lose, Gamera made a surprising comeback in 1995 under the aegis of director Shusuke Kaneko, whose Gamera: Guardian of the Universe became a sleeper hit in Japan and even got a small theatrical release in the U.S. The success of the film stood in stark contrast to 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. Guardian of the Universe received two sequels, Gamera: Attack of Legion and Gamera: Awakening of Irys, each film even better than the last.
While Gamera remained a good guy in the new movies, Kaneko reworks his origin to make it a bit less ridiculous (if just as implausible) and weaves some interesting ecological and spiritual themes throughout the series, all the while being sure to offer inventive, appealing special effects. While perhaps not the most famous giant monster of all time, Gamera can arguably lay claim to the best modern series of giant monster films.
2) King Kong
The first and, to many, the best giant monster of all time. King Kong shocked and amazed audiences upon its release in 1933. Willis O’Brien’s pioneering stop-motion effects brought Kong to vivid life and influenced a generation of special effects artists, from Ray Harryhausen to Japan’s Eiji Tsuburaya.
Kong’s career since 1933 has been very spotty. There was an immediate sequel the same year called The Son of Kong, but it’s barely remembered today. Japan got its hands on him thirty years later, pitting him against their own monster in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, then bringing him back for King Kong Escapes in 1967 (which, oddly enough, was a tie-in production with an American cartoon of the time, The King Kong Show). Then in the mid-’70s Kong got a remake starring Jeff Bridges and a King Kong portrayed by a man in a rather disappointing gorilla suit. The film did well, though it’s now overshadowed by both the original and the well-received but really, really long 2005 Peter Jackson-directed remake. There was also a very, very bad 1986 sequel to the ’70s film called King Kong Lives starring Linda Hamilton.
Nonetheless, King Kong is the giant monster that started it all, and deserves his place as one of the greatest giant movie monsters of them all, second only to…
Though originally just a particularly well-made rip-off of King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Gojira (known in the U.S. as Godzilla: King of the Monsters in a heavily-altered version of the film) soon grew into a cinematic juggernaut, spawning an entire genre of films in Japan and a menagerie of other huge beasts. While King Kong may have come first, he doesn’t have thirty films. His name isn’t frequently used in pop culture as a generic sufffix meaning “big” or “ferocious” (Bridekong just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?). And there isn’t a totally kickass Blue ?yster Cult song about King Kong.
And while Kong’s films may generally be more critically acclaimed, the reputation of the original Gojira has been on the rise for several years now, as critics have really started to examine the issues of Japanese-U.S. relations and the fallout (literal and figurative) of the U.S. nuclear bombings of Japan. And just this past year, Gojira received a gorgeous Criterion Blu-ray release.
An international cultural icon, Godzilla won the 1996 MTV Lifetime Achievement Award (presented by Patrick – holy shit, really? – Stewart) and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the American Kong doesn’t – ouch). And the future looks bright – a trailer for the upcoming 2014 American remake by Monsters director Gareth Edwards got fans excited at San Diego Comic Con this past summer, and appears to be far more faithful to the creature’s origins than the best-forgotten 1998 travesty.