Fay Wray

A Short History of Monster Movies

‘Monster movie’ is a colloquial term for a sub-genre within horror, science fiction and fantasy film characterised by the threat of something large and frightening (or a bunch of small ones). Although most traditional horror antagonists are, technically, monsters, the designation is usually limited to oversized but essentially dumb animals. The label ‘Creature Feature’ (which originally referred to horror-themed television and film screenings) is essentially interchangeable. The concept is so simple that it allows for a dizzying number of interpretations, ranging from gigantic apes, dinosaurs, robot dinosaurs and leviathans (especially sharks and, to a slightly lesser extent, octopi), man-eating plants, insects, arachnids and rodents (giant or swarming), to colossal men, fifty foot women and aliens that look like streamlined and disturbingly phallic gargoyles. The Lost WorldIn narratology, this story archetype is often referred to as ‘Overcoming the Monster,’ in which the protagonist sets out to defeat an aggressive force that threatens their own life, their family or their homeland. This is an ancient form of narrative that allegorically describes a key part of the human experience (conflict with the Other), its literary roots found in the stories of Perseus, Theseus, and Beowulf. Landmark cinematic examples would include: The Lost World (US, 1925); King Kong (US, 1933); The Thing from Another World (US, 1951); The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (US, 1953); The War of the Worlds (US, 1953); Them! (US, 1954); The Creature from the Black Lagoon (US, 1954); Godzilla (Japan, 1954); Jaws (US, 1975), Alien (US, 1979); Jurassic Park (US, 1993); Independence Day (US, 1996); Cloverfield (US, 2008); Sharktopus (US, 2010); and Super 8 (US, 2011).

Horror film orthodoxy tends to cite Galeen and Wegener’s Der Golem (Germany, 1915) as the first fully developed ‘monster movie,’ but in ‘creature feature’ terms the honour goes to The Lost World (US, 1925), a feature-length silent adaptation of Conan-Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name in which living dinosaurs are discovered in the Amazon Basin. Scientists return to London with a captured diplodocus, which escapes and stomps the Square Mile before trashing Tower Bridge, establishing the classic plot device of rampaging monsters causing panic while destroying familiar landmarks. TKing Kong posterhe stop-motion dinosaurs were created by Willis O’Brien (1886 – 1982), who had made short dinosaur films for Edison – most notably The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (US, 1918) – and the artist Marcel Delgado (1902 – 1976). After the success of The Lost World, O’Brien and Delgado worked on two unrealised projects, Atlantis and Creation, before animating King Kong for RKO, another ‘Lost World’ story with a giant gorilla and more sex appeal provided by the original ‘Scream Queen,’ Fay Wray, released in 1933. The impact and influence of King Kong cannot be overstated. Not only was O’Brien and Delgado’s stop-motion and model work stunning for its day, the film also had a tight three act plot scripted by James Creelman and Ruth Rose (based on a story by English crime writer Edgar Wallace), while directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack delivered the action-packed story at a breathless pace. Like James Whale’s Frankenstein, made two years previously, there was also a genuine sense of tragedy and pathos in Kong himself, a noble creature taken out of his own world and put on display in New York, hopelessly seeking high ground and a way out by climbing the Empire State Building, cradling Wray like a much-loved doll.

The hastily produced and inferior Son of Kong (US, 1933) quickly followed, along with a legion of franchised and unlicensed gorilla chillers, including Mighty Joe Young (US, 1949, for which O’Brien won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects that he should have received for King Kong), Robot Monster (US, 1953), King Kong vs. Godzilla (Japan, 1962), and Queen Kong (UK, 1976), with Dino De Laurentiis producing a high budget update in 1976. The ‘Lost World’ plot remains popular, as seen in the Kevin Connor/John Dark/Doug McClure collaborations of the mid-70s, starting with The Land That Time Forgot (US/UK, 1975 – an adaptation of the pulp novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs adapted by Michael Moorcock), Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park trilogy (US, 1993 – 2001) and the Jurassic World reboot (US, 2015), and Peter Jackson’s epic remake of King Kong (US, 2005). In addition to this archetype, there are also, of course, historical dinosaur movies employing prehistoric settings, often anachronistically including cavemen to provide a bit of drama. O’Brien’s sixteen minute silent The Ghost of Slumber Mountain set the standard, using the plot device of a magic telescope to view the time of the dinosaurs, while Hal Roach’s One Million Years B.C. (US, 1940) provided stock footage for dozens of cheap monster movies until Hammer re-made it in 1966.

Ray Harryhausen posterAs a child, iconic stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen (1920 – 2013) was inspired by King Kong. He worked with O’Brien as an assistant on Mighty Joe Young, and picked up the torch when King Kong was re-released in 1952, stimulating a new craze for monster movies crossed with atomic anxiety. Harryhausen animated The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (US, 1953), in which Arctic nuclear tests thaw a hibernating dinosaur, and It Came from Beneath the Sea (US, 1955), when hydrogen bomb tests destroy the food source of a giant octopus, compelling it to eat San Francisco. In this popular and much imitated formula, monsters are either created by irresponsible science, or are forced to retaliate to protect their habitat. The heroes are usually soldiers, the heroines scientists, and the monster always destroys a metropolitan area and defeats the military in the second act, before being killed by the hero in a suicidally brave climax involving a plan that might just be crazy enough to work. Other atomic monsters include the giant ants of Them! (US, 1954), and Tarantula (US, 1955), although the most enduring of them all is Ishiro Honda’s mutant dinosaur Godzilla (Japan, 1954).

GojiraThe original Gojira was inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but shot less than ten years after the atomic bombing of Japan the destruction of Tokyo is realistic and harrowing while the resolution is dark and downbeat. Rather than using stop-motion animation, Godzilla is traditionally played by an actor in a suit, and has starred in thirty Japanese films to date, with two additional outings in Hollywood, and no sign of either series ending. Rival monsters include Mothra (a giant moth), King Ghidorah (a three-headed dragon), Mechagodzilla (a robot Godzilla built by aliens), and Ebirah (a giant lobster). The best British example of the form is Gorgo (UK, 1961), in which a volcano releases a monster that is captured and put on display until his mum turns up to save him – a plot later lifted for Jaws 3-D (US, 1983).

Back in the states, more explicitly Cold War atomic anxiety was also explored in a series of alien invasion movies, most notably The Day the Earth Stood Still (US, 1951), directed by Robert Wise, and George Pal and Byron Haskins’ big budget update of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds for Paramount in 1954. Such films cross over into the territory marked out by the monster movie, also establishing a trope in which lone aliens are fundamentally good while large numbers represent a merciless, invading hoard, analogous to the perceived enemies of Western Capitalism.

Bava VampiresAs environmental anxiety replaced nuclear, the monster movie shifted more towards the theme of nature in revolt (or ‘eco horror’) in the 1960s and 70s. The model for this plot is essentially the novella The Terror by Arthur Machen (1917, in which the natural world attacks the human as a response to the Great War) combined with Charlton Heston’s battle against army ants in The Naked Jungle (US, 1954). Notable examples include: Phase IV (US, 1974 – ants); Frogs (US, 1974 – homicidal amphibians); Night of the Lepus (US, 1974 – giant rabbits, seriously); Kingdom of the Spiders (US, 1977 – organised tarantulas); The Swarm (US, 1978 – killer bees), and Piranha (US, 1978; along with Lewis Teague’s Alligator, 1980, probably the best of the Jaws knock-offs). Spielberg’s seminal Jaws (US, 1975), meanwhile, eschewed the politics of the original novel, which was a Moby Dick for the Watergate generation, in favour of a return to the traditional values of the monster movie, a great white shark staking a claim to a popular seaside resort, until it is hunted down and fortuitously killed by the everyman hero, small town police chief Martin Brody. At the end of the decade, Ridley Scott’s Alien (US, 1979) explored the form’s gothic, fairy tale, and sexually surreal possibilities. Alien, too, looks back to the classic era of monster movies, partially remaking the man-in-a-suit B-movie, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (US, 1958), in which a homicidal alien life form gets aboard a spacecraft and decimates the crew, and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (Italy, 1965), where something nasty is unleashed from as derelict spaceship.

Cloverfield LibertyBy the 1990s, the archetypes begin to noticeably repeat, with Jurassic Park essentially returning to Kong’s Skull Island (even the giant gates look the same) and Deep Blue Sea (US, 1999) being dubbed ‘Jaws 2000’ by critics. Arachnophobia (US, 1990), Eight Legged Freaks (US, 2002), and Snakes on a Plane (US, 2006) are hyper-real eco horrors, while Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (Korea, 2006) is an allegory of America’s military presence in South Korea that looks like an old school Japanese monster movie. The 9/11 allegory Cloverfield (US, 2008) is similarly a vérité Godzilla, while Independence Day and Mars Attacks! (both US, 1996) remake The War of the Worlds, and Super 8 (US, 2011) returns to the 1950s archetype of misunderstood and stranded aliens, like those in Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (US, 1953); also revisiting Joe Dante’s affectionate coming-of-age story Matinee (US, 1993) and the love of low budget monster movies.

Sharktopus posterWith the advent of relatively cheap, accessible and sophisticated CGI software combined with streaming media and the explosion of themed digital TV channels desperate for content, there has of late sprung up a new breed of independent monster movie, not a million miles from the post-war B-movie and grindhouse tradition, with Declan O’Brien’s Sharkopus (US, 2010, co-produced by Roger Corman) – which is exactly what it sounds like – forming a nice bridge between the old and the new. Sharks feature prominently in these cheerfully formulaic straight-to-video movies (with giant spiders a close second), with the best of them produced by the independent American film company The Asylum, which kicked off with Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus in 2009, followed by Mega Piranha and Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus (US, 2010), Mega Python vs. Gatoroid (US, 2011) – with the inspired casting of 80s pop icons Debbie Gibson and Tiffany – and 2-Headed Shark Attack (US, 2012; featuring another strong female lead in Brooke Hogan, daughter of Hulk). The most popular of The Asylum’s output in this area is the ongoing and very high concept Sharknado franchise (US, 2013 – date), which is self-consciously postmodern and deliberately parodic and intertextual, triumphantly celebrating the genre by throwing in every reference and signature weapon the writers can think of. As the marketing for the original movie proclaimed, ‘Enough said!’

Finally, there are also still a few maverick independents out there willing to push the boundaries. For me, the most interesting of the bunch – and I love Shaknado, don’t get me wrong – is Frank Henenlotter’s ultra-low-budget Bad Biology (US, 2008), in which the monster is a giant, drug-addicted penis able to detach itself from its owner and run amok. You don’t see that every day.

Bad Biology DVD

This is an up-dated version of a piece originally published in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Gothic (2012) edited by William Hughes, David Punter and Andrew Smith.


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Gottesman, Richard and Geduld, Harry. (1976). The Girl in the Hairy Paw: King Kong as Myth, Movie, and Monster. New York: Avon Books.

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