The Deep Cut Monster Movies That Paved the Way for Modern Horror Classics
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.
The "Killer Creature" genre preys on the primal fear that humanity could all too quickly come tumbling off the top of the food chain. Explore these deeper cuts on the Creature Feature genre, featuring the '50s movie that inspired Alien, a personal recommendation from Quentin Tarantino, "the most dangerous film ever made," and more.
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.
I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957, dir. Gene Fowler Jr.)
Troubled teen Michael Landon has a bad temper, so he goes to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist decides Michael would make an excellent subject for an experimental drug that reverts humans back to their primitive state. Michael becomes a savage beast, unable to stop himself from attacking cheerleaders. If all monsters are metaphors, this one is pretty obvious.
Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957; dir. Roger Corman)
After a group of scientists goes missing on a remote island in the Pacific, a second crew must investigate their disappearance. They soon find out that the first group fell prey to giant, radioactive, brain-absorbing crab monsters bent on world domination. (The crab leader has a French accent.) Attack of the Crab Monsters is one of Corman’s best drive-in films, making the most of its extremely small budget. Recommended by Quentin Tarantino.
The Abominable Snowman (1957; dir. Val Guest)
An expedition into the Himalayas to find the elusive yeti (played by the usually amiable actor Forrest Tucker) is the central focus of this 1957 film from Britain’s legendary Hammer Film Productions. Once again, Val Guest was brought in to direct the film version of a popular BBC production. This was Peter Cushing’s second picture for Hammer, following the classic The Curse of Frankenstein.
It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958; dir. Edward L. Cahn)
It! The Terror From Beyond Space is about a crew of a space ship returning from Mars and their horrific battle with an alien stowaway. Dan O’Bannon credits the film for inspiring him to write the 1979 classic, Alien.
Earth vs. the Spider (1958; dir. Bert I. Gordon)
A giant tarantula terrorizes the citizens of a small town. Many of the shots use rear projections screens and microphotography of a real tarantula ambling through model town. The effect was probably never very convincing, but like many of Gordon’s films, it has a certain charm. Earth vs. the Spider is a prime example of '50s horror films aimed squarely at teens growing up in the shadow of the Bomb. In one key scene, a rock-and-roll dance party in the high school gym rouses the irradiated arachnid from its sleep and triggers a small-town killing spree.
The Wasp Woman (1959; dir. Roger Corman)
Janice, the owner of a cosmetics firm, begins taking injections derived from wasps in an attempt to combat aging. Unfortunately, although they help with aging, they have other, less desirable, effects. Janice finds herself taking the form of a murderous wasp-human hybrid! Similar to The Fly, which was released the previous year, Janice’s head transforms while her body remains largely unchanged. The posters for the film depicted a giant wasp with the head of the woman even though that is the opposite of how the creature manifests itself in the actual film.
Gorgo (1961; dir. Eugene Lourie)
A giant prehistoric animal is found, captured, and brought to London by greedy promoters who apparently never saw King Kong. Turns out Gorgo is actually a baby monster, and his gigantic mother is not pleased that he’s been kidnapped. Once again, British social realist filmmaking collides with monsters, yielding interesting results.
The Food of the Gods (1976; dir. Bert I. Gordon)
Based on an H.G. Wells story, this film features a group of friends find themselves on an island populated with director Bert I. Gordon’s favorite things: giant versions of chickens, bees, maggots, mosquitoes, and rats! Watch this back-to-back with Earth vs. the Spider and contemplate one man’s lifelong love affair with rear projection screens.
Eaten Alive (1977; dir. Tobe Hooper)
Hooper's first film after the wildly successful Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Eaten Alive is another portrait of psychotic rednecks in the south. This time the redneck feeds his victims to his pet crocodile. Eaten Alive is one of horror icon Robert Englund’s first forays into the genre.
Orca (1977; dir. Michael Anderson)
A vengeful killer whale seeks revenge on the person who killed his calf and mate. Although ads made it looks like a standard Jaws ripoff, the film is actually sympathetic to its title character (the sequence where his family is killed is devastating). Unlike Jaws, which vilified sharks, Orca sneaks in a message about cruelty to sea creatures. The film boasts an original score by Italian composer, Ennio Morricone.
The Swarm (1978; dir. Irwin Allen)
Flame throwers and bees! In the 1970s, people were actually afraid that African killer bees were going to invade the U.S. and begin a reign of terror. Irwin Allen, the producer behind the blockbuster disaster epics The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974) naturally decided to capitalize on these anxieties. In the film, a massive swarm of killer bees terrorizes cities across America. They're out to get a stunning array of stars, including Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Lee Grant, José Ferrer, Patty Duke, Fred MacMurray, and Henry Fonda. If they succeed, who will guest star on The Love Boat?! Look out for the scene in which a traumatized boy—reeling from a picnic gone bad—is tormented by the illusion of a giant bee hovering over Michael Caine's shoulder.
Prophecy (1979; dir. John Frankenheimer)
Toxic waste runoff from a paper mill causes a bear to mutate and go on a killing rampage. Director Frankenheimer was one of the greats, but this is not his best work, and apparently he opted to tone down the gore in favor of environmental pontificating; still, the mutant bear attacks left a mark on many young brains.
Alligator (1980; dir. Lewis Teague)
Alligator follows a Chicago police officer and a herpetologist investigating a murderous sewer alligator that has grown to adulthood after having been flushed down the toilet. The film’s premise comes from urban legends that have persisted since as far back as the 1920’s. (Experts agree that alligators wouldn't last long in a city sewer or survive an icy-cold Chicago winter.)
Wolfen (1981; dir. Michael Wadleigh)
A series of mysterious murders in New York City leads NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson to the perpetrators: a pack of hungry wolf spirits! The film is notable for its use of POV shots with an effect that looks similar to thermography. This effect would later be used in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Predator. Overall, it's one of the most beautifully shot gritty New York movies.
Clash of the Titans (1981; dir. Desmond Davis)
With stop-motion special effects by Ray Harryhausen at the apex of his career, this film’s memorable creatures include the snake-headed Medusa and the Kraken, an enormous, multi-armed fish demon.
Roar (1981; dir. Noel Marshall)
A passion project for producer-director Noel Marshall and wife Tippi Hedren. Hedren and Marshall loved big cats and wanted to explore how they could live peaceably with humans. They made a movie about it, which has been described as "the most dangerous film ever made." The plot centers on a family who goes to live with big cats in Africa. Roar featured real lions, tigers, leopards, and elephants interacting with the actors featured in the film (including a very young Melanie Griffith). Although its production was hugely risky, the film is amazing in the most literal sense of the world, and unlike any other. It makes you terrified for the fictional family, for the actors who play them, and even for the big cats!
Of Unknown Origin (1983; dir. George P. Cosmatos)
Peter Weller plays Bart Hughes, a typical, respectable white collar guy who becomes obsessed with an infestation of aggressive rats in his upscale New York City townhome. When his wife and son go away for the weekend, Bart goes to war with the rats and finds himself on the road to losing his mind.
Phenomena (1985; dir. Dario Argento)
Before her turn in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986), Jennifer Connelly starred in Phenomena as a young girl who is blessed (or cursed) with the ability to communicate telepathically with insects. Jennifer must use her powers (and her friendship with a very intelligent, razor-wielding chimp) to pursue a serial killer who has been murdering young women at her Swiss boarding school. One of Dario Argento's craziest movies, made even crazier by the generous use of heavy metal on its soundtrack. After its European theatrical release, a shortened version of Phenomena was distributed in the United States under the title Creepers.
Invaders from Mars (1986; dir. Tobe Hooper)
A remake of the 1953 movie of the same name, Hooper’s Invaders from Mars follows a young boy named David Gardner as he witnesses an alien ship land in the rock quarry behind his home. Gradually people are assimilated and only David seems to notice. The film features some amazing creature effects from the legendary make-up effects artist, Stan Winston, and visual effects from John Dykstra, one of the founding members of Industrial Light and Magic.
Leviathan (1989; dir. George P. Cosmatos)
One of the many films released around 1989 that tried to capitalize on the expected success of James Cameron's new movie The Abyss, Leviathan is essentially Alien set underwater. An exemplary cast (which includes Ernie Hudson, Peter Weller and Daniel Stern, all at the peak of their careers), coupled with phenomenal cinematography and great practical effects help the film stand out as a fun example of 1980s excess.
Arachnophobia (1990; dir. Frank Marshall)
A rare species of spider is inadvertently transported from its home in the South American rainforest to a small town in the United States, where it promptly starts breeding with the local spider population. When the local populace starts dropping dead, it's up to a young doctor (Jeff Daniels) with a deathly fear of spiders to do battle with his ultimate nightmare.
Deep Blue Sea (1999; dir. Renny Harlin)
At a remote underwater facility, a group of scientists have created genetically enhanced super-sharks as a part of their research into a cure for Alzheimer’s disease (?). A freak accident and a tropical storm traps the personnel in the facility with the hyper-intelligent, hungry sharks. Samuel L. Jackson’s death in this film stands out as one of his best (even if the CG is incredibly dated).
Ginger Snaps (2000; dir. John Fawcett)
Two death-obsessed teenaged sisters are attacked by a werewolf; one of the sisters is infected. Thus begins a tale of sex, murder, and high school redeemed by strong female characters and very Canadian black humor.
Eight Legged Freaks (2002; dir. Ellory Elkayem)
Giant spiders are unleashed on a small Arizona town in this 2002 horror comedy, which joyfully evokes 1950s classics like Them! Roger Ebert was a fan. As part of the promotion for the film, Warner Brothers released a video game entitled Eight Legged Freaks: Let the Squashing Begin. In the game you play as David Arquette’s character, Chris McCormick, as he shoots giant spiders with his crossbow then cracks wise.
Open Water (2003; dir. Chris Kentis)
Based on the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, Open Water follows a couple on a scuba diving trip who are left stranded in shark infested waters through the negligence of their guide boat. Unlike most shark movies that feature exaggerated shark behavior, the filmmakers in Open Water used real sharks to create a more authentic representation of shark aggression.
Slither (2006; dir. James Gunn)
Alien parasites that resemble slugs are turning the residents of a small South Carolina town into mindless, flesh eating zombies. The over-the-top grotesque body horror of Slither is a long way from director James Gunn’s more recent work in the Marvel cinematic universe. In a nod to his Troma roots, Gunn gave Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman a cameo in the film.
Piranha 3D (2010; dir. Alexandre Aja)
French director Alexandre Aja’s contribution to the Piranha-verse features an all-star cast of vetted comedic actors, including Christopher Lloyd, Elizabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Adam Scott, Paul Sheer, and Jerry O’Connell. In an obvious nod to Jaws, the film that inspired the first Piranha, Richard Dreyfuss is the first casualty of the film, arguably reprising his role, Matt Hooper, and showing the ultimate demise of the character.
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