Monsters Reflect Society's Fears in These Enduring Entries in the Creature Feature Genre
Ready for a deep dive into horror? Each week, acclaimed director, writer and producer Eli Roth compiles a curated list of films that best exemplify horror's various sub-genres. Whether you're a new horror fan or a die-hard expert, "Eli Roth's Deep Cuts" has a recommendation ready for you.
Since the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers have preyed on our innate fear of the forces of nature and the looming threat that we could easily succumb to the wild whims of an unforgiving predator. Monsters give our fears a face. In this list of enduring entries into the Creature Feature genre, explore how humanity has envisioned the maw of the merciless hand of fate for generations -- and how in most cases, humans are the most malevolent monsters of all.
Go even further with this list of deeper cuts on movie monsters that have shaped modern horror classics, then take a deep dive into some of the campy, crazy and pure cult classics among creature films.
Then, watch the latest episode of Eli Roth's History of Horror to see Stephen King, Tippi Hedren, Joe Dante and more weigh in on the classic movie monsters that stalk the screen.
King Kong (1933; dirs. Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
A giant stop-motion ape rules over a jungle island where dinosaurs roam; unfortunately, he falls in love with a dazzling flapper, gets shanghaied by a greedy huckster, and winds up as roadkill on the streets of New York City. Not so much a “deep cut” as an essential film we couldn’t fit into this season, this killer creature film has it all.
Gojira (1954; dir. Ishiro Honda)
Gojira (aka Godzilla) is a fire-breathing metaphor for the atomic bomb: an engine of vast destruction that, once unleashed, can’t be contained. Eyepatch-wearing scientist Dr. Serizawa builds a weapon that can stop the monster, but using it means adding another super weapon to humanity’s vast arsenal. (This pacifist plotline was completely erased from the American version.) Though the Godzilla series later veered toward frequently enjoyable camp, the original Japanese version is a genuine horror film with a powerful message.
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964; dir. Ishiro Honda)
The second “vs.” movie in the Godzilla franchise, Mothra vs. Godzilla pits the two kaijus, each of whom had had their own solo films, against each other. Among the multitude of vintage Godzilla sequels, to many fans Mothra vs. Godzilla is the best.
Alien (1979; dir. Ridley Scott)
The ill-fated crew of the spaceship Nostromo encounter one of the nastiest killer creatures in the cinema history. H.R. Giger’s highly sexualized imagery, coupled with a suspenseful haunted-house-in-space narrative by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, yields a film that works as both horror, action, and blatantly Freudian nightmare.
Island of Lost Souls (1932; dir. Erle C. Kenton)
Island of the Lost Souls is the first cinematic adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells’ classic novel in which a mad scientist (played with scenery-chewing panache by Charles Laughton) has combined humans and animals at his remote island lab. As with many other pre-code films, Island angered the censors and was refused a certificate from the British Board of Film Censors multiple times before finally earning an ‘X’ certificate.
The Mummy (1932; dir. Karl Freund)
A creepy if slow-moving (naturally) picture with Boris Karloff in the title role. Karloff spends surprisingly little time wrapped up in his famous bandages, but the film delivers with moody cinematography (Freund photographed Metropolis for Fritz Lang) and some dramatic pre-Code violence.
Cat People (1942, dir. Jacques Tourneur)
A moody, allegorical tale in which a man falls for a mysterious young woman who fears she will turn into a panther if she has sex. He marries her, they have sex, and…she turns into a panther now and then. The man decides that maybe the “good girl” he works with is less high-drama, a move that does not go over well with his now ferocious wife. Produced by the legendary Val Lewton, this beautiful film introduced the “jump scare” into the language of cinema.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948; dir. Charles Barton)
The comedy is played for laughs and the monster elements are played straight in this very entertaining picture from Universal. On hand are three of the greats: The Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Dracula (played by Bela Lugosi!). Quentin Tarantino, John Landis and Joe Dante all cite this as inspiration for blending genres in their films.
Them! (1954; dir. Gordon Douglas)
Giant irradiated ants are unleashed on the populace and they are hungry for human flesh. One of the first of many nuclear monster films to follow the start of the Cold War, Them! also had the distinction of starting the giant bug movie craze.
The Quatermass Xperiment aka Creeping Unknown (1955; dir. Val Guest)
Three astronauts are sent into space; only one comes back, and he’s not quite right. By the end of the film he has mutated into a shapeless Lovecraftian monstrosity hellbent on planetary domination. Directed by the great Val Guest, this was the first of Hammer Films’ three adaptations of the BBC’s Quatermass SF/horror productions. Its gritty naturalism, moody cinematography and seriousness of tone gave it a much sharper edge than American creature films of the period.
The Mummy (1959; dir. Terence Fisher)
The towering Christopher Lee plays a frightening yet sympathetic Mummy who stays in his bandages, except for the flashbacks explaining how true love brought him to this sorry state. Lee’s Mummy is essentially an old-school zombie controlled by a sinister Egyptian bent on revenge against the British colonials who ransacked his country’s buried treasures. This being an English film made in the 1950s, his quest for revenge doesn’t get very far.
Willard (1971; dir. Daniel Mann)
Willard, a social outcast, uses his rapport with an army of rats to seek vengeance on those who have wronged him. Eventually his tenuous grasp on the rodent hoard weakens as he is overwhelmed by the sheer number of rats that have taken up residence in his home. The film spawned one sequel, Ben, and later a remake with the same title, starring Crispin Glover in the titular role.
Shivers (1975; dir. David Cronenberg)
The first feature-length film from horror master David Cronenberg, Shivers chronicles the outbreak of a genetically engineered parasite that turns its hosts into sex-crazed maniacs. It took Cronenberg over four years to get it made, and after its release the writer/director faced a slew of negative feedback from Canadian politicians appalled that national arts funding financed something so transgressive. Eventually all was forgiven: Cronenberg is now a living legend and a Canadian national institution.
Piranha (1978; dir. Joe Dante)
Mutated super piranhas bred to fight in Vietnam are accidentally released into a river just upstream from a children’s summer camp and a newly opened resort. It’s up to Paul and Maggie to alert everyone and get them out of the water before it’s too late. Piranha was one of many knock-offs of Spielberg’s shark movie, Jaws (1975), but it stood out from the pack thanks to a clever script by John Sayles and great directing by Joe Dante, who got the most out of his shoestring budget. Universal wanted to take out an injunction on the film since it would be competing with their unnecessary follow up to Jaws, Jaws 2 (1978), but Steven Spielberg liked the picture and interceded on its behalf.
Cat People (1982, dir. Paul Shrader)
Paul Shrader makes explicit that which was implied by the original, doubling down on the eroticism and perversity of the material. In this version, incipient cat-woman Nastassja Kinski has a cat-man brother, played with malevolent glee by Malcolm McDowell. The hero of the story is a zookeeper, which may give you an idea of where this allegorical tale of desire and repression is headed.
Pet Sematary (1989; dir. Mary Lambert)
This adaptation of the Stephen King novel features a family whose new home sits near a busy highway and an ominous cemetery for the neighborhood’s pets. Things take a turn for the macabre when the family’s cat, Church, is run over. On the advice of Jud, their elderly neighbor, the patriarch of the family inters Church in the “Pet Sematary,” causing the cat to rise from the grave. But they are playing with forces that they don’t fully understand…
Tremors (1990; dir. Ron Underwood)
A horror/comedy classic, Tremors pits likable but not-very-bright country boys (played by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward) against giant carnivorous worms. Clever use of camera tricks, stop motion, and puppetry were used to create the effects behind the “graboids.” Michael Gross and Reba McEntire steal the show as a survivalist couple whose faith in firepower is rewarded in spectacular fashion.
Mimic (1997; dir. Guillermo del Toro)
Del Toro’s first American film, Mimic is about an outbreak of genetically mutated bugs that can disguise themselves as their prey: humans. The scientist who created them must help stop the menace that she inadvertently unleashed upon the citizens of New York. The film is rich with del Toro’s gorgeous visuals and the monsters are truly chilling. Del Toro's director's cut is widely available and vastly preferable to the theatrical release.
King Kong (2005; dir. Peter Jackson)
Coming off the massive success of Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson used his muscle to make a dream project: a loving remake of King Kong featuring state-of-the-art special effects and scenes planned for but not included in the 1933 version. A charismatic cast led by Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody and Jack Black anchors this epic (and we do mean “epic” – the extended version runs 3 hours and 20 minutes long).
Cloverfield (2008; dir. Matt Reeves)
A group of friends get together for a going-away party in Manhattan that is interrupted by a giant monster attack. Cloverfield is an interesting twist on kaiju films, fueled by producer J.J. Abrams’ desire to create a badass monster along the lines of Godzilla and King Kong. It is also, of course, a reflection of post-9/11 anxiety. Warning: this is a “found footage” film, so don’t get too attached to the characters. A sort-of sequel, 10 Cloverfield Lane, is also recommended viewing.
The Bay (2012; dir. Barry Levinson)
Presented as cinema verité footage that has been confiscated by the government, The Bay chronicles the outbreak of a mutant parasite in a small seaside town as seen through the eyes of different groups affected by the outbreak. The parasite is a real world isopod known as the “tongue eating louse,” details of which are far more unsettling than anything you’ll see in a horror film.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012; dir. Drew Goddard)
Five college students head to a remote cabin in the woods…but all is definitely not what it seems in this cheerfully insane tribute to horror written by Buffy the Vampire Slayer alums Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. Must-see viewing for any horror fan with a sense of humor, The Cabin in the Woods sends up virtually every genre trope while also serving up monster archetypes of virtually every description.
Click here to see all of Eli Roth's Deep cuts.
Eli Roth's History of Horror airs Sundays Late Night. Want even more exclusives delivered directly to you? Sign up for the Eli Roth's History of Horror Insiders Club.