A vicious incarnation of man’s destructive nature! Mutated by radiation! Crash landing on Earth’s silver screens, movie monsters are creatures of habit. Like most of us, they enjoy the summer weather, which is why so many movie monster attacks happen in the sweltering summer months when sweat-drenched humans take refuge in AC-cooled theaters. While this year’s monsters are mechanical — transforming, terminating, and generally causing a ruckus — there have been a myriad of movie monsters over the years, ranging from grotesque biomasses to recreated prehistoric horror, that cure the summertime blues with terror. The Filmcritic staff hopped in our cars, made a makeshift drive-in screen out of a projector and garage door, and took a look at our Top Ten Summer Monsters.
The Thing (1982, June)
John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing was beaten like a rented mule when it first appeared in the summer of 1982. Critics condemned it as one of the worst movies ever and audiences abandoned it in the wake of Steven Spielberg’s cuddly E.T. But Carpenter had the last laugh –The Thing has since risen in prominence to become regarded as one of the best modern horror films. Its enduring appeal stems in no small part from the monster itself: a seething, ever-shifting collection of fangs, tentacles and dripping ichor hidden behind a placidly human facade. It strikes a perfect balance between flat-out gore and horrifying plausibility, and Rob Bottin’s non-CGI effects remain even more convincing than some of the computer-generated schlock passing for ‘effects’ today.
Alien (1979, May)
Ever since it sucked face, exploded through a chest and single-handedly doomed the Nostromo, Alien redefined sci-fi horror and inspired countless films (not to mention nightmares), including three sequels and two spin offs. The insect-like alien killed without emotion and dripped goo like there was no tomorrow in the dark corridors of a spaceship. When we left the theaters, it hid in the dark corners of our minds thanks in large part to the H.R. Giger-inspired alien design that helped the film win the 1979 Academy Award for visual effects and which still hold up today.
Jurassic Park (1993, June)
Until this early-’90s blockbuster hit the summer screens, dinosaurs were campy claymations — just look at 1960’s Dinosaurus. The film originally planned to have claymation go-motion (similar to stop motion) dinosaurs courtesy of Phil Tippet. When Terminator 2 brought computer-generated effects to the screen, Jurassic Park ditched the go-motion to for a blend of animatronics and computer-generated effects. The results were the most realistic dinosaurs ever seen on screen, as they flipped over SUVs, spit black sludge, and ripped people apart. Though its silly sequels let the effects slip, the original still shows us a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth.
Predator (1987, June)
Not only does Predator have the coolest Schwarzenneger quotes (classics like, ‘Get to the choppa!’ and ‘If it bleeds, we can kill it.’) but the Predator itself is one badass alien. Hosting its own Most Dangerous Game, the Predator severs victim’s limbs, blows off their heads, skins them, and rips out their spines — all in a day’s work for a being bred for warfare. The predator is so hardcore that it started a rivalry with the equally-evil alien from the Alien series by showing off an alien skull in its trophy case in Predator 2. He’s also ‘one ugly mother f*cker.’
THEM! (1954, June)
You know a monster is badass when its victims are so traumatized that they can only refer to it by pronoun. The adversaries in this 1954 radiation-makes-stuff-big chiller are a race of giant ants that spring up in the New Mexico desert before taking on the sewers of L.A. The premise is no more or less silly than that of a number of ginormous insect flicks of the era (The Deadly Mantis, The Beginning of the End, Tarantula) but the writing is somehow tighter, building carefully to the first ‘look-behind-you!’ reveal and sustaining through the flamethrowers-vs.-colony finale. Closing the deal is an unforgettably eerie sound effect, something like a cricket chirp on steroids, that announces their deadly presence.
Jaws (1975, June)
Duhh-Dum. Duhh-Dum. That’s the sound of the summer blockbuster about to attack theaters. Jaws was the first movie to have a nationwide opening — setting a precedent for what would become the summer distribution standard. With director Steven Spielberg’s POV camera work and John Williams’ classic score, the story of a great white shark terrorizing a tourism-supported beach town kept audiences out of the water that summer. And though the human-hungry shark has aged in the past 30-plus year, it’s still a monster movie right of passage for younger viewers and a nostalgic summer ride the rest of us.
The Host (2007, July)
Unless you’re in a major city, chances are you missed South Korea’s The Host when it first attacked just a few theaters on American shores, but the beast resurfaced on DVD on a sweltering summer afternoon. Born from improperly disposed-of bottles of formaldehyde in the Han River, the amphibious beast is one of the most imaginative in recent years — in both design (a mutated fish) and behavior (devouring its prey and regurgitating the bones). Director Joon-ho Bong doesn’t shove the monster spectacle in our face, but instead gives us an understated monster reveal in a crowded park — making it feel like we’re there experiencing it rather than sitting in a theater watching it. The misfit family of screw-ups that co-stars along side the monster provides laughs in between the scares.
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957, June)
Impervious to modern-day weapons! Doubling in size every day! The seemingly unstoppable, always memorable Venus monster from the classic 20 Million Miles to Earth runs amuck in Rome — unfathomable technology and flamethrowers fueling the excitement. The stop-motion monster put Ray Harryhausen into the visual effects hall of fame, along side the likes of Tippet and Stan Winston. There isn’t much thematic depth to 20 Million Miles to Earth, but in what other film can you see an alien monster fight an elephant in front of the Roman Coliseum?
The Fly (1986, August)
Some may say that 1950’s The Fly is better suited to the fun sunny days of summer, but David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake materializes a more terrifying monster — Jeff Goldblum. After Seth Brundle (Goldblum) mixes his DNA with that of a fly in a teleportation accident, the mutated Brundle-fly bonks Gina Davis and liquidates a guy limb in an arm wrestling bout, just before his teeth start falling out and his skin turns to a grotesque jelly. As with many Cronenberg films, the terror is internal — Brundle-fly wrestles with his physical changes and inescapable death — casting a dark cloud of introspective despair on a typical summer’s day.
The Blob (1958, September)
The Blob‘s release date might be pushing the summer movie season, but watch the film today — it drips with summer sweat. When a meteor lands on Earth, the blob is released to swallow a quiet, all-American town, growing faster than a teenager on a summer growth spurt, and challenging a young Steve McQueen to a diner showdown. You can read the independently-made movie as an allegory for the growing American consumerism of the late ’50s, or sit back and have some campy fun. Either way, you’ll be whistling the catchy theme song long into the dog days of summer.