Tom Jolliffe offers up 10 essential creature features…
Who doesn’t love a good old creature feature? They still seem to be immensely popular, with recent reboots for the Jurassic Park and Godzilla franchises. That popularity in fact has been booming in the Asian markets in particular (whilst some of the recent big monster films have disappointed in the US box office such as Pacific Rim or the last Godzilla).
There’s a long and varied history with creature features that have been viewed predominantly as escapist cinema, or B pictures, but have also seen a number of widely acclaimed and respected examples, whilst certain key films through film history have been deemed groundbreaking. Here are ten essentials…
This one really did start the ball rolling. It was an astonishing achievement in 1933. This film kickstarted the monster movie genre, and pioneered stop motion animation. In many senses this is the original big visual fx film. Fay Wray was made a star after this, though nothing could quite match the success of King Kong. This still remains by far the best cinematic incarnation of the Kong story. For one there’s the simplicity and the lithe running time. This clocks in at half the length of Peter Jackson’s bloated remake in 2005. It also looks better than the terrible version from the 70’s. The Kong sequences have of course dated in some regards, but such is the magic of the storytelling that you become immersed in what is happening and the creature becomes natural. Likewise, whilst very prominent in the film (and the Kong vs Dino sequence is still awesome) the effects shots are used sparingly. Nowadays in the CGI era, we can see as much monster mayhem as we want, doing as many destructive things as possible, but then there’s no mystery. There’s no rationing and then the creature loses its impact.
Despite the fact it’s a guy in a rubber suit, the visuals in Godzilla still feel pretty spectacular, and full of great set pieces. This was really an iconic beginning to the Godzilla mythos. It started a huge fascination in Japanese cinema with these films and the many follow ups and spin offs. Eventually of course, the American market brought it over with largely mediocre results (and by the time they did of course, a film like Jurassic Park was infinitely superior to the Godzilla remakes which followed).
Jason and the Argonauts
There are an array of great monster sequences in this Ray Harryhausen classic. This film probably remains his most iconic. It was hard to pick just one, particularly given the others are crammed with legendary stop motion sequences. Jason and the Argonauts, among all it’s great sequences features the skeleton warriors fight which still remains one of the most iconic effects sequences. It’s kind of creepy and it still works brilliantly. Effects aside, this slice of Myth and fantasy is an enthralling adventure story. The kind we don’t see enough of these days, or at least made with the same kind of awe inspiring quality as this. Again, the big sequences these days leave no mystery and look lifeless.
This may well be the greatest. The creature in question is based in reality. A killer shark. The whole affair feels grounded in the possibility it could happen and we’re treated to an enthralling tale with engaging and distinct characters. This showed Steven Spielberg off as a director with the touch of a master. He’d already made a thrilling B picture with Duel, which got by on ruthless simplicity and assured pacing. Jaws is an exercise in brilliance with a film and concept that had no right to essentially play a key role in altering the cinematic landscape. These kind of B movies always brought with them a touch of critical scorn, dismissed as light affair without depth. It also came in a period of distinctly edgy, trailblazing and pessimism tinged dramatic cinema in Hollywood. Film-makers were breaking ground with serious cinema, the strongest era in American film, but Jaws showed an ‘event’ picture could bring B level concepts and make them critically viable (and Jaws would do very well during Award season).
Taking a cue from Jaws, Ridley Scott took a B movie concept and treated it with deathly seriousness. He grounded the film with a blue collar feel with a group of unimportant workers on their way back to Earth, awoken from stasis early. Several argue about bonus shares and they complain about the bad food. There’s an interesting dynamic of working class hierarchy within the ship. This could be miners, it could be factory workers, and Scott took them out into space and threw a killer alien into the mix. For good measure among the tension and human dynamics, the late great Ian Holm is brilliant as an Android that has a protocol to follow and ends up malfunctioning. The creature designs by H.R Geiger are legendary. The visual effects brilliant. The Xenomorph itself glistens in slime and looks utterly horrifying. The almost kitchen sink nature of the characters initially, makes the film interesting, and I can imagine on initial viewings no one knew who’d make it through to the end. As it happens, it was Sigourney Weaver who would re-appear as Ellen Ripley a further three times (most successfully in Aliens). Alien is classic horror and its grounding in a relatable reality and skill in establishing our setting, make it one of the best ever.
John Carpenter remade an old B picture and took a degree of influence from Ridley Scott’s Alien. We have similar elements, a group of blue collar workers holding up in a remote research station in Antarctica who encounter a couple of members of a Norwegian team who are hunting down a dog, intent on killing it. All hell breaks loose and the two Norwegians end up dead, their station also has no survivors and seemingly they’ve succumbed to cabin fever. Carpenter, like Scott, lays out the reluctant every man drudgery of having to work away from home. He displays the space in which the events will take place, the world weary characters and then unleashes hell. It’s incredibly difficult to separate Alien and The Thing in terms of immortality and legacy. Both are masterfully made. The Thing’s visual effects, all achieved practically, are still astonishing and some of the most hideous ever committed to film. The body snatchers element of the film, and the idea of an infection leading to replication always loads the film with tension and a persistent sense of distrust between the dwindling characters. All culminating in a magnificent payoff. Additionally Ennio Morricone’s iconically Carpenter-esque score is a wonderful variation on the great composers usual works.
Probably the most manly, testosterone charged film ever made. It begins as a Jungle set action assault. It’s all sweat, muscular handshakes and one liners. It’s pure Arnold brilliance with a load of renowned hard nuts like Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Bill Duke and Carl Weathers growling out their dialogue. Then it switches into a monster movie as one by one, the band of mercenaries are slaughtered by a fearsome alien creature. The fact the film is set entirely in Jungle is made to be a benefit. It become a melange of never changing imagery, of which the Predator can hide within. The film is loaded with classic Arnold lines, and the Oak himself is effective in his role. We feel the pressure on him as a leader, unaware of just what he’s dealing with but trying his best to overcome the monster. Still one of the most iconic movie creatures ever.
The monster movie was falling out of fashion by this point. There’d been noticeable disappointments but likewise a feeling that the visual effects of the 80’s had dated compared to what audiences would expect now. Along came Steven Spielberg, the man behind the wonder of Jaws, Close Encounters, and E.T, to bring dinosaurs to screen in a way we’d never seen before. What he did was masterfully blend groundbreaking CGI effects, used sparingly (and still better than any of the sequels) combined with huge animatronics. Jurassic Park is still brilliantly effective, particularly those ‘unseen monster’ moments and Spielberg is a master of building tension and creating thrilling set pieces.
The man of 2019, Bong Joon Ho was already well established as one of Korean cinemas most exciting talents by the time he made The Host in 2006. The film marked probably the best creature feature since Spielbergs Dino debut. A great mix of inimitable Joon-Ho style and comedy mixing effortlessly with powerful dramatic moments. There are family dynamics making the whole thing interesting. There’s no hanging about in setting up the creature and unveiling him. Ho forgoes that enigma that Spielberg laid in Jaws, though we do sensibly see the creature quite sparingly and in brief surges. The CGI effects given the era are also impressive, and mostly still hold up (let down by some ropey fire fx). There’s a great cast headed by Ho stalwart Kang-Ho Song (Parasite) and additionally the cinematography is stunning. Loads of dirt, lots of rain swept nights and real textual feel to proceedings. This one is well worth seeking out for those who’ve not yet seen it.
A Quiet Place
A simple conceit, a gut punching first act, and intimate family interactions in a place where the slightest sound could spell your doom. Writer/director/star John Krasinski casts his hat into the ring of directors to keep a look out for with this tense and gripping horror. Sound and the unseen plays a big part in cranking up the tension. Who’d have thought Jim from The Office would evoke masters like John Carpenter, but he does with aplomb. His partner in crime here, real life wife, Emily Blunt also gives an exceptional performance and likewise Millicent Simmonds as their daughter. A great monster horror in the glorious tradition of how they used to be made.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/